Theatre critic, Lyn Gardner, talks about reviewing Shakespeare, theatre, and culture.
Read her reviews & column here: https://www.thestage.co.uk/author-lyn-gardner
For a complete episode transcript, check out http://www.womenandshakespeare.com
Interviewer: Varsha Panjwani
Guest: Lyn Gardner
Producer: Hannah Kasko
Artwork: Wenqi Wan
Varsha: [00:00:02] Hello there! Thank you for tuning in and welcome to ‘Women & Shakespeare’. I'm your host, Dr. Varsha Panjwani and everyone who knows me knows that I have often, some would say very often, bemoaned the mainstream journalistic and academic reviewers and reviewing practices in Shakespeare in this country due to the homogenous profiles and viewpoints of the culture commentators in the UK. As a reviews reader, it often seemed to me that while theater had been progressing, reviewing was really not catching up. This landscape of theater reviewing is changing rapidly now, and I'm really excited about it. But in the days when this wasn't the case, theater critic Lynn Gardner's reviews for my ray of hope because it made me believe that women have the right to be authorities on theater, on Shakespeare, on culture. In the rapidly shifting theater, reviewing scene, Gardner has continued to tirelessly champion shows from the fringe…she's always done that and she has pushed for diversity in Shakespeare production. Lynn Gardner has reviewed for many British mainstream newspapers, including The Independent and the The Guardian. She's an associate editor of The Stage and her weekly column on theater and culture brightens my Mondays. So I'm totally talking to one of my longtime sheros in this episode.
You are so very welcome, Lynn, to ‘Women & Shakespeare’ podcast because I have been reading your reviews, my students have been reading your reviews and your theater criticism, and we have learned a lot from you. So, I can't tell you how thrilled I am to have my absolute favorite writer on theater on this podcast.
Lyn: [00:02:03] Oh, well that's a really lovely introduction. Thank you very much, Varsha. If you and your students have been reading a lot of my reviews, you may have found out a lot about theater, but I'd rather suspect you will have found out a great deal about me as well.
One of the things I always think about theater criticism is about the fact that it is enormously revealing of the writer.
Varsha: [00:02:26] Well, all amazing things, in that case. I am gonna begin with a question that I ask all my guests. When did you first encounter Shakespeare, and what was the nature of that encounter?
Lyn: [00:02:38] Well, my first encounters with Shakespeare wouldn't have been with the plays at all. As a child, I had a very old copy of Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare which were retellings of Shakespeare stories. I've looked at them since, and, of course, they now seem incredibly [00:03:00] archaic. But at the time I devoured those stories in exactly the same way that I devoured fairy tales.
I didn't really see any difference between the two. And, in fact, I don't think there is any difference between the two. But I think the great advantage of that was that by the time I started to encounter the plays, I was already familiar with the stories themselves. And I think for children in particular, but I think it's true of adults as well, there's something very important about knowing the narrative, knowing the story. So much Shakespeare production fails on the grounds that it doesn't actually tell the story with great clarity. And one of the things I certainly always did with my children when they were young was that I would make sure that they knew the story of the play before the play began. Because after all, the story itself is not always the most [00:04:00] interesting thing; and we'd never go back to see Hamlet again….well, we know Hamlet dies at the end. That's not the reason that we see Hamlet over and over. Well, sometimes it's because of course actually people keep on putting on Hamlet when actually they should put on some of the other plays.
But anyway, so that was probably my first encounter. Then I would say probably a far less happy encounter when I was at school. But I was one of those children who quite enjoyed reading out loud in class , a bit of a chance to show off. So I used to get called upon to read quite often when we were reading Shakespeare plays, but actually I don't think it's the happiest way to come across the plays because largely what we did was mangle the language and mangle the sense.
And, in my teens, I can remember starting to go to actually see the plays and I recall seeing a production of Loves Labors Lost at the Royal [00:05:00] Shakespeare Company when I was a teenager. And I also saw in Ian McKellen play Hamlet in London.
So, I had some early encounters with Shakespeare, but, would I say I loved him? No, I wouldn't. Certainly not. I mean, I think it's the case…there is a lot of very dull Shakespeare and there always has been the way that it's produced.
Varsha: [00:05:22] I absolutely agree. I have sat through a lot of dull Shakespeare myself.
But I love that the first encounter was with Lamb's Stories. I have a very happy memory of my younger brother in bed and I'm reading out these stories for him. So it's such a joyous thing to be brought back to that and to realize how many people's first encounters were Lamb’s Stories.
Before we even get onto Shakespeare shows, you've had such a long career as a reviewer. So please tell us in your long career, how has the role of the [00:06:00] theater reviewer changed?
Lyn: [00:06:01] I think it has changed and I think it has changed for the better.
In terms of who does the job and how they do it. When I first started out, one, there were very few women in the UK actually doing it. There was almost nobody who hadn't been Oxbridge educated. And I think the other thing was that the review, because it appeared in a newspaper in a column, it was a bit like Moses handing down the tablets in stone.
And therefore, that was the received wisdom and the received history of what that production was like. And I think that the very nature of theater reviewing in many ways had remained kind of stuck in the 19th century, maybe even the 18th century. And the Internet blew that open.
So, for theater [00:07:00] reviewing, it meant for the first time that somebody could write a review. And other people could respond to it. And of course, the thing that was interesting about that is that you got disagreement, you got people who saw different things.
And in fact, what it did was that it opened up the fact that reviewers were, that we were, not experts. That in fact that there were lots and lots of experts out there who probably knew a great deal more about Shakespeare's Cymbeline than actually we did and probably had seen more productions. And I think the other thing that the Internet did was, because it meant that anyone could have a platform, it changed the nature of where reviewing happened, who was doing it, and the form that it might take. So for hundreds of years, the theater review had remained pretty well the same in terms of its format and I think it [00:08:00] started changing and opening up and I think that's a good thing. We wouldn't for a moment think that art should stay the same for decades or indeed hundreds of years. So why should theater reviews remain the same?
Varsha: [00:08:17] I agree; if you don't have to any longer provide the word of God, then you can provide other things, go off in different directions, and [Yeah] And therefore, I love reading reviews now because it's such a great mixture of what everybody's saying and the angles that they are coming from as well.
So, you have reviewed both Shakespeare and non-Shakespeare shows very widely. And what would you say are the particular challenges or joys of reviewing a Shakespeare production?
Lyn: [00:08:51] I don't fundamentally think there's any difference between reviewing a Shakespeare production and reviewing a new play or a new piece of devised theater [00:09:00] to some degree what you do is that you treat everything as though you are coming to it for the very first time as though it is a new play.
And I think that's potentially really interesting. I recall some years ago going to see a production of The Merchant of Venice with somebody actually who had never been to the theater, let alone been to see a Shakespeare play, and he was absolutely on the edge of his seat in the casket scene because he had no idea what happened.
And I'm slightly contradicting what I said earlier about the story that if you know what happens that that's no, no less exciting. But I think it is the job of the director and of the cast and the whole production to make you feel like that every single time.
Varsha: [00:09:49]…Following on from that, my students, when they are starting to review or they want to have a go at writing a review, they ask me whether they should be [00:10:00] telling more of the story when they're reviewing something that is not in the public domain as opposed to, say, if they are reviewing a production of Romeo and Juliet. Should they assume that the audience knows the story as they are writing the review? What do you think about that?
Lyn: Yeah, I think that's a tricky one, and you have to negotiate it with yourself on every single review that you are writing and depending who you might be writing for as well.
So I would say in general I think one would make the assumption that everybody probably does know the plot of Romeo and Juliet and that you wouldn't spend a lot of time actually telling people what it is. But, obviously on a new play, I think there are fundamentals. That you need to do…basically, you need to set the scene: Where are we? Who are these people? What is it they want?
You have to give a context for the reader because you might otherwise then have fantastic insights into the [00:11:00] play and be very good about dissecting the subtext. But if people don't know what it is that you are writing about…and I think one of the things that we need to remember about theater reviews, certainly again in kind of the more broadsheet and mainstream press, is they are largely written for and will be read by people who will never see that production.
You are the conduit, in a way, between the production and the reader. And so therefore you do have to give them as much information as you can before you can possibly then go off on a tangent and speculate about other interesting things about the production.
Varsha: [00:11:42] So do you think then most people consume reviews before or never having gone to the theater? Rather than, say, after they've seen the production to compare their views?
Lyn: [00:11:54] How people use reviews…I think that has changed enormously. And, and again, I think that's a good thing [00:12:00] because I think in the past if somebody, if a critic had said something about a production, in a way, that becomes set in stone and part of the received wisdom about that production. And it could be completely untrue! It is just the critic's view. And, it’s really freeing as a critic, and it's really freeing when you are first starting to write reviews, if you just remember: it is just your opinion. I said earlier that if you and your students have read a lot of my reviews you may found out something about theater, but you will probably have found out quite a lot about me, and that is the way to use reviewers, which is to read them regularly, and to read a wide range of critics on different platforms, and then you start to get a sense where your taste and aesthetic and interests [00:13:00] actually intersect with those of that particular critic.
Varsha: [00:13:04] Fantastic. My student, Lily Kapner, she wanted to know what your top three Shakespeare productions are and why? And the reason she's asking this question is that she wants to know if there is anything in particular that you look for in a Shakespeare production in order for it to earn a stellar review, for example.
Lyn: [00:13:24] That's interesting. People are always asking me about, what are my favorite productions ever? I find that a really, really difficult question, and the reason I find it difficult is because it changes all the time. As a reviewer or, and as a human being, , you change all the time. I'm a great believer that it's hard to really appreciate Chekov until you've experienced some disappointment in your life. It is quite hard when you are a teenager, when you think that you are invincible, to ever really understand the disappointment of the three sisters [00:14:00] or the characters in The Cherry Orchard.
So I guess that what are my favorite three that I don't think I can come up with three, but I can tell you of some productions that I've really loved and that come to mind.
One would be. Fiona Shaw and Brian Cox many years ago in an old Vic production of The Taming of Shrew. And the reason I would select that is because that was a production that, for the very first time made The Taming of the Shrew make some sense to me that I could see, one: how you could make this play work, and secondly: how that relationship plays out that just didn't feel just like so icky and horrible and like, “I don't really wanna know about this”. And partly because it, it came up, I suppose with a concept, which was that it was played out through the filter of grief and that Katherina, in [00:15:00] particular, that what she is suffering from, I guess, is a form of complicated grief for post-traumatic stress disorder. And so that would be a production that I would say that made me look at a play in a different way.
Things like Michael Grandage, he did a wonderful production in 2000 at Sheffield Theaters of As You Like It with Victoria Hamilton and Ben Daniels. And it was just so so joyous. And, and what you really saw in that was sort of emotional winter turning into spring. And one of the reasons I would think about that is that often with productions, it's just particular images that kind of stick it in your head. But again, I've always felt that As You Like It is a play I ought to like much more than I often do in production because everything about it seems to me that it would appeal to me. But actually, the reality is that often, when I see it, I [00:16:00] kind of go, “Oh God, there is just so much plot”. And, and Rosalind can be really irritating, and and I never quite know what this world is and how it's supposed to operate; and then there's all those subplots, Phoebe and Sylvia, and, and you go, “No, no, no, no. It's all just too much”. And that was a production that just, again, made me really understand the play. And I thought that was fantastic.
A lot of my favorite Shakespeare productions are foreign language Shakespeare productions. So, Thomas Ostermeier’s Hamlet, he's absolutely extraordinary, Richard II in which Richard is a kind of failed rockstar, absolutely brilliant. And of course, absolute tops probably for me would be the Ivo van Hove The Roman Tragedies and The Kings of War -two absolutely astonishing productions that make you rethink Shakespeare in every way.
Varsha: Yes, I [00:17:00] saw the Richard III that you were talking about. Oh, wow! The things that he did with the Barbican audience were extraordinary. Yeah. Yeah. And I did want to ask you about that because, in my seminars, we do discuss a lot of worldwide Shakespeare productions. So I wondered how do you approach reviewing a production, if it is in a language or in a culture that you are unfamiliar with.
Lyn: Well, I think you have to do it with delicacy, and I think you have to think about why have these artists decided that they want to do this play. And, and that would be a question that I would always ask that probably when I sit down to review a production, any production whether it's a brand new play or new piece of devised work, or a Shakespeare or an Ibsen, whatever it is. To a large degree, I hope that what I'm trying to do is sit there as a blank [00:18:00] slate. I mean, you know, impossible, but to some degree.
But I think the question I always ask would be, “why this? why now?” And I think that's particularly true if you are reviving plays which are considered to be classic plays. Why do we need to see another production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Twelfth Night , those plays, which are done so often.
So I don't think that you are looking for something very specifically but you are seeing what it is that is brought to the play and that the play brings to the creatives. And I think one of the things that's interesting about a foreign language Shakespeare, on the whole, it's more interesting than a lot of the work that is produced by British companies. And I think that's quite simply because they are not hung up on the language. And I think that for a lot of British creatives, Shakespeare is quite scary. I think [00:19:00] Shakespeare is scary for audiences often because of their experience at school. Growing up that they know that they don't like it. And a lot of work that the Royal Shakespeare Company has done has absolutely proved that, in fact, teachers are often quite scared of having to teach Shakespeare. But, I think, given the right help and the right supoort, I think that it's possible to do that.
But it leaves a legacy whereby people in England and the rest of the UK feel that we should put on Shakespeare and, because he's our national dramatist, sometimes described as our national poet, that we need to put it on it's good box office because there will always be school parties and people will go because even though they're a bit scared of it, they kind of go, “Oh yeah, well it's a familiar title and I ought to like it”.
So Shakespeare becomes on medicine. Yes? Whereas actually I think what happens with a lot of people, [00:20:00] if you are producing Shakespeare in India or Romania or in South America, then what actually happens is that you go, “This is the play I really feel I, as a director, want to put on now because it speaks to me and I think it will speak to other people”. So therefore I think there is an urgency and an interest behind it. Yeah. Mm-hmm. and I, and I think the thing that's really crucial there is to remember that Shakespeare is not the language. I can't remember who it is, but somebody, a professor, and he once said that, you know, in English Shakespeare is a series of quotations, when you approach it a foreign language production, it is kind of completely fresh, and I think that's very true. Yeah.
Varsha: [00:20:46] Dennis Kennedy said that, [Ah, yeah] and I, I find that really refreshing as well, and I tell my students, “Do you think it's true?” And then show them some Bollywood Shakespeare, which blows their minds.
Yeah. Yes, yes. Interesting. [00:21:00] So, So what do you think that these worldwide productions then bring to Shakespeare? I mean, why should we go and see them? What do they do for Shakespeare?
Lyn: Well, they quite simply, they keep his plays alive. And if you were a playwright, isn't that what you want? You know, you don't want to be flogged, like a dusty old corpse around the stage. That's a paraphrase actually of a Robert Icke quote who is not particularly complimentary about a lot of British Shakespeare production. And I think it is very true. I think that actually they just managed to make us see these plays through new eyes, and goodness! if you're going to produce any Shakespeare or a well-known play, that is what you want to do. You know? Otherwise, why bother? And I, and I feel that about quite a lot of Shakespeare production. I just go, “what did you say that was new about this play? [00:22:00] Did you tell the story with such clarity that I was able to follow it, and maybe see something new in the storytelling”. So I'm not for a moment saying that you have to dress Shakespeare up in lots and lots of concepts. To be honest, I slightly sigh when a director collars me and goes, “I've just got this amazing concept for Much Ado About Nothing”, you know? I, I, I don't want the concept. I want, I want somebody who feels really passionate about that particular play and feels there is an urgent need, why we need to…
Varsha: [00:22:37] yeah, absolutely. And exactly. I’ve come out of many, many shows thinking why was it necessary to do another A Midsummer Night's Dream?! What have I learned from spending all this time in the theater and money in the theater as well?
Lyn: [00:22:53] Particularly true with A Midsummer Night’s Dream because of course you always then get the bit at the end with the [00:23:00] rude mechanicals, which, when it's done well, is just hilarious and wonderful, but so often just goes on and on and on.
Varsha: [00:23:10] Yeah. Well, I have definitely had that feeling where I'm just thinking “Okay, finish this story. Okay”. So, I am an absolutely avid reader of your Monday column for The Stage. And in one of your recent columns you wrote that, and I'm quoting you, “critics need to review independent work if they want to shape theater culture”. And this has also been your practice because you have always reviewed fringe and independent shows much more than any theater reviewer I know. And could you elaborate why this is necessary, or in particular, what do independent Shakespeare shows bring…
Lyn: [00:23:47] exactly what any kind of independent theater brings to theater, which is that it helps to move the culture on. On the whole what happens is, in [00:24:00] theater, is that what is new, what is interesting, what is often initially derided, but which will eventually become part of the mainstream begins on the fringes, or one might want to describe it as on the outside and gradually it becomes gathered by the inside.
And so not to review independent theater seems to me real dereliction on the part of the theater critic because that is where the new and the interesting and possibly the radical is likely to happen. And I think we've had lots of examples in the UK of companies who have approached Shakespeare in a different way, whether that is something like Shakespeare at The Tobacco Factory, which, for a number of years down in Bristol, was producing, I suppose, what you might call really quite plain Shakespeare, definitely no concepts but doing it with [00:25:00] such a beautiful clarity of storytelling that it made each play feel as though you were seeing it for the very first time. And, for quite a number of years, producing much better Shakespeare than probably the Royal Shakespeare Company was doing during the same period. And then, there are companies like Filter who have only done two Shakespeares, but did a Twelfth Night and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which again, were so joyous. So, kind of combined a sort of rock aesthetic and a comedy aesthetic. And yet they managed to bring out the melancholy in both of those plays as well. And I think there's something really interesting about that. In fact, I recall the first time I saw Filter, it was during a British Council showcase at the Edinburgh Fringe.
And there were a lot of delegates from Asia and we sat and watched this production and I thought it was just wonderful. And afterwards, a couple of the delegates turned to me and they went, [00:26:00] “was that Shakespeare?” And I think in a way that is the wrong question. It's a question people often ask, they go, “is that theater?” And the answer to that is, “What is it that Shakespeare might be?” And the only way that Shakespeare will remain alive is that if we find different and new ways to produce and distribute the work.
Varsha: [00:26:25] We were talking earlier about many boring Midsummer Night’s Dreams but that wasn't it! I saw Filter’s Midsummer Night’s Dream when it transferred to the Lyric Hammersmith in London, and I took my students to it and we had the most wonderful time. It made me understand the melancholy at the heart of the play as well. It was wonderful.
What do you think about livestreamed or born digital theaters, which happened…I mean, which were happening anyway, but happened a lot more during [00:27:00] the pandemic. What has been your experience of digital Shakespeare?
Lyn: [00:27:03] It's been quite limited but I have seen some and most obviously the work done by Creation Theater in Oxford which I thought was hugely enjoyable.
And I guess my view would be, and I touched on it just a minute ago when I said that we have to find new ways to do the plays, and I said, and to distribute them. And I think this is a question of distribution. I, I think it's a creative question as well, which is how can you use all the tools or all the colors in the paint box or all the tools in the toolbox?
And it seems to me that digital is just one of the ways of doing that and one of the joys of watching Creation do the shows that they have done was seeing them experimenting with that, sometimes more successfully than at other times, but again, with a kind of exuberance, with a kind of, “let's just try it and see” that I think is [00:28:00] is very exciting for audiences to watch and I think audiences are always very forgiving when they recognize that particular kind of quality.
But I think it's a much bigger question, which is, listen don't get me wrong, I often look round a theater when I'm sitting in a theater on a wet Wednesday evening at 7:30 and there are several hundred people with me, and I feel touched and moved that all these people have bothered to turn up and to gather together in this one place at this particular time. And also about the fact that for thousands of years people have come together to gather in that way. But I think one of the things that the pandemic has really shown us is that is a truly wonderful and moving thing and something which has survived for thousands of years and I think will continue to survive for thousands of [00:29:00] years.
But that there are other ways of doing this and that digital is but one way. Yeah. It's probably a very significant way. I mean, over the pandemic I've had plays delivered to me via digital theater, but via postcards, I've had plays delivered to me down the phone. There are many, many different ways of distributing theater and one of the things that we need to recognize is that whether it is for reasons of pandemic and those people who need to shield and who will continue to need to shield (cause we are not outta a pandemic) or whether it is people who, for whatever other reasons, which may be physical, they may be mental, they may be simply logistical that they've got small children at home and can't get out to the theater for 7:30 to get to where it's going to happen.
We need to think much harder about [00:30:00] how we will include those people. We are always talking in theater about the fact that we want to find new audiences and a bigger audience. So why exclude them?
Varsha: [00:30:11] And that is what moved me as well, in consuming digital. Sometimes Creation would show snippets of audience cameras; just seeing how many people who wouldn’t go to the theater had appeared and were participating, participating rather joyously in this creation.
My question to you now is that how do you think reviewing itself shapes productions or theater generally? So do you think that reviewing can shape the landscape?
Lyn: [00:30:43] Yes, I think it does. In so far as, quite simply, what the critic chooses to review helps shape the culture because what tends to be valued in the culture is what is reviewed. And the danger is that the only things that [00:31:00] get reviewed are things which are already in the mainstream. So I think that it is crucial in that way. I, I'm, I'm a firm believer that it, it is artists who shape the culture, not, in fact, critics. Critics respond to the culture. And I think what happens is that we are either not very fortunate or very fortunate to live through a period of time when artists are particularly radical or are really periods of great change. Yes? But I think it is the responsibility of the critic to recognize that.
And I think that we often like what we know. . And I think that there has often been a tendency on the part of critics to run away from things that they find difficult or feel that they don't immediately understand [00:32:00] when actually, I think that what you need to do as a critic is to keep on going back to see that work and to interrogate it and to start learning the vocabulary and the mechanisms by which it is operating.
And a very good and simple way of doing that is that I think it's very easy in a production to look at a production, whatever it is, as a critic and go, “I have no idea why they are doing”, or “what is that that they are doing?”, and “I just don't see the point. It shouldn't be there”. Whereas actually I think if you view things in a different way and go, “no director is going to put something on stage without having really thought a lot about why it is that they are doing that”.
And you need to think very hard as the critic. [00:33:00] And go, “so why are they doing that? Oh yes. Well, could it be because of this or could it be because of that?” and I think the thing about that is, is that you might be wrong with the reasons or ideas that you come up with but it doesn't matter.
Being a critic isn't about being right or wrong. If you worried about that, you'd never write anything. And secondly, you are simply making your…so, it is your response from you as a human.
Varsha: [00:33:27] I think that is a wonderful note to leave the audience with. Thank you so much. I knew that in a conversation would with you, I would learn so much, but I did not know how enjoyable it would be. So thank you so much.
Lyn: [00:33:44] You're welcome. Thank you so much for inviting me.
Varsha: [00:33:46] That was Lynn Gardner talking about theater, reviewing Shakespeare and culture. The episode was produced by my former student, Hannah Kasko, who made the recording process so [00:34:00] smooth and enjoyable despite a lot of technological glitches. Next month it will be my privilege to talk to Wendy Lennon, founder of the brilliant ‘Shakespeare Race and Pedagogy’ initiative.
So dear listeners, adieu, adieu, adieu. Remember to tune in to ‘Women & Shakespeare’, streaming at Apple Podcasts and Spotify. If you want to listen to the podcast with a full transcript, head over to the website, www.womenandshakespeare.com. Until then, keep smashing the patriarchy.