This purpose of this article is to help you understand what a theatrical review is and how to go about writing one. Writing a review will help deepen your appreciation of a piece of work, unravel complex structure, narrative and staging, and expose yourself to topical themes that reverbrate with your own understanding and experience of live lived.
- What is a Review?
- Key Requirements for a review
- Your Genuine Response
- The Context of the Play
- What’s in a Review?
- Context Statements
- Experience Statements
- Argument Statements
- Descriptive Statements
- What a Review is Not
- Anatomy of a Review
- How To Review a Theatre Performance
- 1. Prepare (30 mins to 1 hour)
- 2. Get to the theatre (early)
- 3. Get notepad and pencil ready
- 4. Be open to the experience of play
- 5. Take notes during the play
- 6. Keep Track of the Dramatic Questions during the performance
- 6. Do a Quick Post Review (30 mins to 1 hour)
- Writing the actual Review (2-5 hours for 600-1000 words)
- What is required of you, the reviewer?
- Template for Writing a Review
- Other Sources
- How Critics Work
- Michael Billington of the Guardian
- Harold Hobson, Sunday Times & Christian Science Monitor (1929-88)
What is a Review?
A review is a your individual, informed response to a performance. That response is relayed as a descriptive, narrative argument of your experience. The review encapsulates the play’s meaning with description, analyses its various elements with argument and assembles an overall narrative of the entire experience of seeing the play. Your reader will then be able to answer two simple questions from your review:
1) Is the play worth going to see?
2) What’s it about?
Yes, a poster can answer those questions with an image and stacked superlatives but you provide a real argument based on the actual experience of being there. Doing this well will give a close-up report of the experience of seeing the play, and an aerial perspective – examining the work in its own right.
Merchant of Venice / Propeller Company at Galway’s Town Hall. (C) Termine
Key Requirements for a review
There are many elements in a review. The simple questions from the reader (they often have many more) become multi-faceted for you. ‘What’s it about?’ has several variations in terms of plot, context and meaning. Rather than addressing each element in turn, you can focus on the key requirements which will encapsulate the other elements.
Let’s address these critical requirements:
a) Your genuine response
b) The context of the play
Your Genuine Response
Ever watch a football match? A horse race? Event commentaries are the purest form of review, because they happen in real time and carry a very human response in the moment the action happens. Here’s one from Harry Carpenter as Muhammad Ali beat George Foreman in 1974:
‘Suddenly Ali looks very tired indeed, in fact Ali, at times now, looks as though he can barely lift his arms up… Oh he’s got him with a right hand! He’s got him! Oh you can’t believe it. And I don’t think Foreman’s going to get up. He’s trying to beat the count. And he’s out! OH MY GOD he’s won the title back at 32! Muhammad Ali!’
Read it a couple of times. Don’t you feel the excitement of the bout? You can almost imagine being there. You certainly know that Mr. Carpenter was there. He was completely engaged in the action. While your review won’t be moment to moment, it should capture your real experience.
Your emotional reaction, what you experienced during the play, is a very valid reaction – as long as you can support what you felt. By describing what you felt, the reader can come to a conclusion whether they would have, and would want to have a similar experience as you, and thus their question ‘Is it worth seeing?’ may be answered.
How do you that? The first thing is to be open. When you go to see a play, make sure that you leave yourself completely open to the experience to follow so that you can relay what it is really like to be there. When I read adjective laden negative reviews, I suspect the reviewer of being disingenuous, because no theatrical experience,for those who like to go to the theatre, even if excruciating, is all bad. Secondly, describe that experience in your own words. In Michael Billington’s review below, he describes the play as having ‘the reflective quietness of a Wim Wenders movie’. He clearly describes the experience of the play by using an analogy.
The Context of the Play
Context puts the play into perspective. This is the aerial view. It takes the artistic work and tells us essentially what the play concerns itself with in terms of the experience of being human, other theatrical works – anything outside the play itself. In the review below, Mr. Billington says that the play is about urban solitude. It’s not about a documentary film maker who comes back to Glasgow – that’s what happens. It’s a key description of the play. Usually, the play will tell you through the action what it essentially addresses e.g. The struggle of children in an adult world, seeking balance in dysfunctional relationships, man’s inhumanity to man etc. Context is very important in a review because it helps center the reader to the play. To discover the context you need to reflect on the play to find the right way to express what it is about. Context statements also help constructing an argument for a play, because you have identified what the play tries to achieve.
What’s in a Review?
A review will contain four different types of statements:
- Context Statements
- Putting the play into perspective with the outside world
- Experience Statements
- Statements that evoke what it’s like to be there
- Argument Statements
- Making an assertion about the entire work or parts of it citing examples.
- Descriptive Statements
- Describing play elements such as plot, characters, sound.
A review sentence can combine several of these types of statements and they can overlap. Context and experience are covered above. Being able to identify what type of statements are in your own and other’s reviews, you will be able to evaluate the quality, bias and effectiveness of a review.
See the ‘Context of the Play’ above.
See ‘Your Genuine Response’ above’
Argument statements make assertions about the work and cite examples supporting them. They say what works, what doesn’t and why.
A frame for evaluating elements or the overall work is as follows:
1) What is the work trying to achieve?
2) Did it achieve it?
3) Was it worth it?
Using this frame is important for impartial evaluation. You might, for example, see a show that you had a hard time engaging with because the plot was purposely missing (absurd) or exaggerated (farce) or the genre/subject matter/style was off-colour for you but the play successfully accomplished what it set out to achieve. By commenting on this aspect you give a production a fair treatment; showing your bias while arguing whether accomplished what it intended.
The question ‘What is the work trying to achieve’ can be deduced from several places. One place is in the action the protagonist takes in the final crisis/climax. Hamlet does kill Claudius eventually but only after his mother dies. In the act he dies himself. A pyrhic victory. So what was Shakespeare trying to achieve with Hamlet? To show the injustice of fate? Hamlet ended up dead, did it matter that he delayed his decision to take revenge? Another way to deduce the play’s purpose is to look at the consistent action. In Hamlet, he constantly procastinates. In this case you could say, Hamlet is about what happens when you procastinate. Now you have arrived at two different objectives for the work. Which is right? Look throught the work itself and see if your conclusion is supported.
Descriptive statements cover a wide range of play elements from the writing, synopsis, staging, light, sound, acting etc. They can provide a synopsis or description of the stage. The purpose of descriptive statements is to describe what the reviewer sees or sums up so that the reader has a sense of place, time and motion.
What a Review is Not
A review is your considered response to a performance you witnessed as an engaged audience member. You’ve thought about the play and considered what it means in context. You’ve looked at the whole work, figured out what it tries to achieve and considered if it achieved that. The direction, acting, costume, staging, sound, light came were reflected on. You know what it is about and what other work it might compare to. You then went and wrote that response crafted with your own individual style. You drafted and rewrote your review, referring to actual quotes to support your arguments where necessary. That’s a review.
A review is not based on your knee-jerk response, your mood that day, your own morality/religion, your lack of understanding of what is presented, your tiredness, your alchohol intake,your prejudices, the number of people in the audience, the buzz, your buzz, the genre of the show, the sex, religion, colour or politics of the producer/writer/director, your friends’ opinion, the NYT/Guardian/Irish Times. No doubt any and all of these will colour your review but don’t hide behind them as your reader will sniff them out and your review will be worthless. If you have a bias, state what it is, then make your comment. e.g. ‘Eat The Rich made me sick. Well, I’m a vegeterian, so when the ‘roast’ came out in the adaptation of Eat The Rich, I made an exit.’.
Anatomy of a Review
Let’s take apart a review by Michael Billington of The Guardian and see how he manages to convey the essential experience of a play while putting the work in context. Note how he answers many essential questions early on. He immediately puts the play in context with his statement; ‘a study of urban solitude’. We know from this point, what the play is essentially about, what kind of play this is. But because this play has a lot of context statements, it hints that the experience may be somewhat intellectual. He doesn’t use a lot of Experience statements indicating emotionally it might be static. It could also be simply how Mr. Billington experiences theatre.
He answers some key questions about the production:
|What’s the play about?
||It’s about Urban Solitude. It outlines the smoky melancholy of urban life
|What happens in it?
||A famous documentary producer returns to Glasgow to find it dark and sinister
|What’s the tone of the play?
||It has the reflective quietness of a Wim Wenders movie. It is poetic
|What are it’s themes?
||Disconnected lives, Melancholy of urban live, the predator and prey
|How does it carry it’s themes
||Through fragmented, filmic scenes. Metaphor of the bird
|Does it achieve what it sets out achieve?
||Harrower’s vision of the city as lonely
hell is projected with haunting atmospheric precision.
|What’s the acting like?
||especially good performances
Here’s the annotated review:
Review: Urban scene surveyed in a tone of quiet desperation;
Kill The Old Torture Their Young: Traverse, Edinburgh. August 13, 1998
THE second play, they always say, is the hardest. But the young Scottish dramatist David Harrower follows up the moving rural play Knives In Hens with this equally poetic and impressive [Argument: Is it worth seeing? He says yes. He will need to support this in his review]
study of urban solitude [Context: What is the theme of the play?] has the reflective quietness of a Wim Wenders movie.
[Experience: What is the tone or mood of the play? Here he is using analogy]
Harrower is not a man who raises his voice. But in the course of an hour and three quarters he outlines the smoky melancholy of city life.
[Description: A single line evocative description of the play ]
And what holds the fragmented scenes [Description: What is the play format?]
together is the experience of a famous TV documentary maker who returns to his native city – Glasgow presumably – and discovers not so much Technicolor bustle as a world that, in the shocked words of his producer, is “All dark, sinister. All shadows. Browns and greys.”
[Description: Plot synopsis from the main character’s viewpoint]
That seems to be Harrower’s vision too, in that he lays emphasis on lonely, disconnected lives. [Context: Theme of disconnected lives]
Bird imagery also haunts the play and gives it its evocative title.
Paul, an aged birdwatcher who knew the film maker as a boy, describes how the dawn chorus is less a celebration than a cry by each bird to tell the others “it didn’t die in the night”.
[Description: Secondary character description and how he informs the play’s themes]
The implication is that humans, too, are divided into predators and prey and communicate only out of a desperate need for reassurance.
[Argument: He is arguing for his interpretation of the metaphor of the bird and how it informs the play’s theme of prey and predator ]
But the abiding note is one of solitude[Context: Theme of solitude]
. Robert, the film maker, sees the city through a lens darkly. Steven, his divorced producer, lives in terror of the men in suits. Heather, the TV company receptionist, fills up her evenings with regulated hobbies. Only Paul, the old man, makes fitful contact with the girl in the flat below, a hospital switchboard operator with an unrealised artistic talent.
[Argument: He is supporting his declaration of theme with supporting evidence from the play]
Unlike Knives In Hens, the play does not have a strong narrative spine.
[Description: He is saying that the play doesn’t follow traditional complicating events followed by a climax]
In structure, it is highly filmic, a series of impressionistic shots of urban desolation taking in tenements, park benches, hotels, TV offices.
[Experience: What is the effect of the structure to watch? He previously told us it was fragmented, this expands on that description]
The mood indigo music by Tommy Smith that underscores every scene of Philip Howard’s production adds to the feeling we might be watching a piece of early Antonioni.
[Experience: He addresses one of the stage elements; music and what feeling that evokes]
But if the first job of a play is to create its own consistent world, Harrower does it with poetic success.
[Argument: He asserts that the play is successful in what it sets out to achieve]
Howard’s stylish production is aided by especially good performances from Russell Hunter as the lonely pensioner who once saw an eagle flying over the city,
[Argument: What is the calibre of the acting?]
Jenny McCrindle as the frustrated artist in the flat below, Robert Cavanah as the film-making outsider who detachedly observes this modern Waste Land, and Jennifer Black as the receptionist with whom he seeks temporary comfort. There may be more extrovert plays to come
[Experience: He tells us to expect a quiet play as supported by previous statements]
in the Traverse’s bulging programme. But Harrower’s vision of the city as lonely
hell is projected with haunting atmospheric precision.
[Argument: He tells us again that the play does what it achieves to do]
(c) The Guardian 2009
As an exercise, print out three reviews and identify the different types of statement
How To Review a Theatre Performance
1. Prepare (30 mins to 1 hour)
Google the writer, production company and play or use your local library. What has the writer done before? Director? Is this a new play or old? If the text is available, get it.
Don’t look at other reviews of the same play – it will taint your view for the worse and rob you of your own, genuine, opinion.
2. Get to the theatre (early)
Get the program and read it through, noting:
- Is this new writing?
- World premiere?
- Comments by writer and director
- Synopsis (This may differ wildly from your synopsis)
Have your notepad out and ready in the theatre.
3. Get notepad and pencil ready
If the set is visible, draw a little diagram of it. It will help you notice it more carefully. For example, Martin McDonagh has his sets inside out. You see the outside of two cottages stage left and right, but in the center is a table indicating an interior. Have your pencils sharpened, with a spare on hand.
4. Be open to the experience of play
Have an open mind and heart. Don’t pre-judge based on other people’s comments, what you’ve read, the production values, size or reputation of the theatre/company/artists.
5. Take notes during the play
Take notes, but not profusely – stay in the room mentally. Be alert – especially during the open and the end. Ask yourself questions like ‘What am I watching?, What is this? What’s going on? Why is that character doing that? What part of the play am I in? What am I experiencing?’
To make sense of your scribbles later, have a system for note taking. Below are some symbols I use.
6. Keep Track of the Dramatic Questions during the performance
A dramatic question is a question in the mind of the audience as they go through the experience of watching the play. It should change and develop. At the start of Hamlet, the dramatic question is ‘Will the ghost appear?’ then ‘Why did the Ghost appear’. These are often hook questions that keep the audience engaged and is not explicitly stated on stage. By keeping track of the dramatic question, you will come to the central question that dominates the play. In Hamlet, the central question, is ‘Will Hamlet revenge his father’s death?’ Knowing the dramatic questions will allow you to track the underlying action and see if the central question is resolved or dealt with. If it is not, there is likely a problem with the work.
6. Do a Quick Post Review (30 mins to 1 hour)
Write a 5 page review in longhand immediately on leaving the theatre in a separate notebook you used in the theatre. It doesn’t matter if it is gobbldeygook, it will save your bacon when you get to writing it up later. Go somewhere quiet. Don’t spend too long on it.
Writing the actual Review (2-5 hours for 600-1000 words)
What is required of you, the reviewer?
You are required to write an article that relays the experience, informs and provokes. As opposed to the adjective laden capsule review (200 words or less) you need to provide concrete examples, quotes from the script, summarise the plot and take the reader on a journey from the top of your piece to the end. You must provide genuine insight derived from your personal world view interacting with the single performance you encountered.
Answer these questions in your review:
1. Context: What does this play mean in the real world? What is this play a comment on? Man’s cruelty to Man, Urban decay etc. Understanding the context of the play in relation to the world we live puts a lens over the work that can draw it right into focus.
e.g. ..”‘n Friel’s play about the oppresive but frail ascendency… ‘ or “The familiar Irish living in London trope’
2. How does it deal with its subject matter? How does the writer/director work with the structure, language, physicality to achieve their aims. e.g. ‘Writer x starts at the end and ends at the beginning to place us in his inverted world of the ostrich’
3. What works/What doesn’t? If something doesn’t seem to work, provide clear examples. Don’t generalise.
‘The ending did not arise out of anything before and seemed tacked on. The fact that the entire episode was Elvis’ dream robbed us of any significance of leaving his guitar in Galway’
4. How did the performers engage with their characters? Was their anything unique in their interpretation? Did they dig deep to find interesting nuggets in the subtext. Refer to peformers by full name at the first instance and thereafterby Mr or Ms. E.g. Sean Whelan does a terrific Richard III and got a bellylaugh when he stuck a finger into the decapitated man’s head in the bag. Mr. Whelan’s sneer cut the laugh short’
7. How do the tangible elements(set,light, sound, costume) influence the quality of the work. In fringe theatre, these effects are often minimal or expanded on by setting the play in the street, a caravan etc. e.g. ‘ Climbing into the sleeping bag with the other audience member to see two puppets carved from carrots was somewhat claustrophobic but perhaps that is what Beckett was really driving at’
8. What did the Director do to influence pace, staging, interpretation? If the Director has presented us with basic blocking, the text often fails to rise thematically. Could you see all the action? e.g. ‘I never saw Jane Eyre herself; though played by a midget, it was the large armchair from which she delivered her soliloquoy in Act II that was the problem’.
9. Assert an argument about the work – it’s the point of the review. Based on the criteria above and others, argue for the individual and overall work . Clear assertion is key to criticism, even if that assertion is ‘I have no idea what this play is about’.
10. Arrive early to pick up your press ticket. Have your pen and pad out so you don’t have to dig into your bag. Sit somewhere where you will have a little bit of light and a clear view of the stage but don’t put off the actors with your scribbling. Pencils are better than pens because they don’t leak, and you know how much you can write with a sharpened pencil. The very act of sharpening a pencil has a corresponding effect on the mind.
12. Style is up to you; simple language, ornate, rhyme – anything. Have fun with it. Look on
http://www.broadwaybaby.com for examples but your own voice is more important. See other reviewers of all types food, art, architecture, film as well as theatre in the Guardian, NYTimes, Independent if you are looking for inspiration.
13. Sum up the plot, but don’t give away the ending.
Template for Writing a Review
If you have never written a review and are stuck, you could use this template to frame your thoughts.
[Headline; One sentence description of the play]
[Title of play, director, actors, venue, dates and times]
[Opening Sentence;, an angle into your review. It could be a question. What would you do to get ahead? (Richard III) ]
In [author’s name] play [title of work] about [put context statement here] [what effect does this have on the characters in it]
[describe the genre, comedy, tragedy, drama etc]
[short plot summary that leads from the context statement or what happens to the characters]
[describe what the writer/director was trying to achieve and argue whether they achieved it or not]
[describe the experience, what you felt]
[What was the acting like (as distinguished from likeability of the characters). Name some actors that stood out for good or bad. Support your statements]
[Extended piece on context, if relevant. For instance if it is a political play that is relevant to today’s world, discuss. Support with examples from the play]
[comment on the set, sound, lighting, costume if they had a significant role]
[Wrap up. You could answer the question asked at the opening, or describe the overall experience. End on a strong note.]
This is not a complete list but may help. Don’t worry about getting it wrong; a review to be nothing more than a starting point for discussion about the work. There is a book called ‘Theatre Criticism’ in the Hardiman library from which some of the above (the argument) is based on, if you want to read more. If you enjoy reviewing there are plenty of upcoming shows and festivals.
How Critics Work
Michael Billington of the Guardian
Go to everything that moves because the more you see, the richer your opinions become. It’s crucial to read widely, and not just about the theatre. Absorb the past masters of English prose. Criticism isn’t just about expressing opinions. It’s about being able to write with whatever grace and fluency one can muster. A final thought: always write as if your work is going to be published, either in print or online. If you have enough tenacity and stamina, one day it will be.
Always be honest to your own reactions
– Back up your arguments with some concrete examples
– Mix analysis with vivid description of acting and design
– Try to put a play in context: either the author’s previous work, the theatre’s track record or the larger context of life
– Structure the review so that it comes to a well-argued conclusion
– Fake a response: the reader can always tell
– Pretend to have seen what you haven’t
– Insult people just for the hell of it
– Offer an unregulated stream-of-consciousness
– Take too much notice of what your friends or the people around you think
– Let your phone go off during the show.
From The Guardian Newspaper, Tuesday 8 July 2008, Michael Billington
Harold Hobson, Sunday Times & Christian Science Monitor (1929-88)
Hobson had a fundamental critical principle – to create a record of the productions that he had witnessed based upon his emotional reactions. This view remained consistent throughout his career as a theatre critic from 1929 to 1988. Certain critical leitmotifs emerge from his reviews:
- His belief in the importance of theatrical effectiveness;
- A love of the allusive and implicitly suggestive work;
- A recognition of the worth of the actor in the theatrical triumvirate of director, playwright and performer;
- A passionate belief in the importance of new writing of quality;
- A conviction that a climate of encouragement is essential for the nurturing of talented new playwrights.
- These critical maxims are illustrated by considering, for example, Hobson’s attitude to Shaw, and Auden, in the thirties; his despair at the paucity of serious drama in wartime Britain that resulted in him becoming a champion of the avant-garde in the fifties; his delight in Laurence Olivier, Edwige Feuillée and Ralph Richardson; his discovery of Pinter; his championing of Ionesco, Beckett, Osborne and Bond; and his suspicion of experimental theatre in the seventies. – adapted from an abstract of the theses ”The Theatre Criticism of Harold Hobson,Shellard, D.M., 1992, A6