Mark Shenton exists in a world of theatre. Having been a theatre critic since 2002, and written for the Sunday Express, the Guardian, the Independent, and more, over the course of our chat he brings me into this world where everyone and everything is connected by—and revolves around—the stage.
He begins by telling me about the first show he remembers having a real impact on him: a production of The Deep Blue Sea by Terence Rattigan that he watched on a school trip while growing up in South Africa. Shenton speaks about his personal relationship with the production, saying “somewhere in the play something must have triggered something in me” and theorising that perhaps it was the fact that play is written “in code” about a gay relationship. Sometimes the productions that affect us the most aren’t those we expect, but those that speak to us in a way we don’t yet understand. He later discusses having a similarly personal relationship with the Broadway musical Next to Normal, due to its exploration of mental illness.
Shenton looks back on his days studying at Cambridge with the enthusiasm of an audience applauding as the curtain rises. He studied Law at Corpus Christi college, where he was also heavily involved in student journalism, and lists off the now celebrated actors, writers, and directors that form his contemporaries: Hugh Bonneville, Tom Hollander, Joanna Scanlan, and Simon Russell Beale all come up as big names in the Cambridge drama scene at the time. We marvel over the unchanging nature of Oxbridge student drama: a little theatrical time capsule of student celebrities, and networks of intricate and, at times, bizarre connections between people.
He warns me, however, not to become friends with actors if pursuing criticism, deciding that forming these relationships is both “inevitable” and “uncomfortable”. It’s not only actors that he remembers from Cambridge, however: Corpus Christi produced four successful theatre critics, which Shenton finds “baffling”. The Oxbridge network truly is a strange thing.
Speaking about reviewing itself, Shenton is keen to say that “there’s no formula for writing a review”, and “no right or wrong, either”. Obviously we have constraints: he says that “what changes your style more than anything” is word counts, citing an Entertainment Weekly job that was capped at 150 words. There’s also the difficulty of reviewing well-known shows: he says that “you may be able to write about the production in an interesting way, but you can’t say anything new about Hamlet”. He also tells me that for this reason “the easiest reviews to write are the ones for terrible shows”: if they’re really poor they’re likely to have never been done before and will never be done again.
There are a lot of questions a critic has to consider before penning their opinion. For example, “Who entitles us to say what we want to say about a show?” Shenton has decided “we earn our authority”, while remaining aware that people “can take us or leave us” and that it’s often the latter. He believes that while it’s sometimes necessary to be “fearless” and “ruthless”, “you can be honest and kind”—this seems like a good philosophy, especially in an age where making theatre is so difficult.
He’s not optimistic about theatre criticism, however. Citing in part the “cacophony of noise” that is the internet, Shenton is convinced that it’s “impossible for people to earn a living doing it now”, and that trying to make a career out of it would be a “fool’s errand”. Theatre criticism is, he declares, a “dying industry”. It’s not all negative, though: as Shenton says, there are “loads more opportunities than ever”, and a far more diverse range of voices.
In the last month, Broadway has faced a reckoning around its representation of people of colour, transgender people, and non-binary people: there were protests demanding more diversity on the stage, as well as a controversy around non-binary representation in Jagged Little Pill, and the withdrawal of star Karen Olivo from the Broadway production of Moulin Rouge. When asked whether this will affect critics, Shenton says that responding is “absolutely a responsibility” but “also a minefield”, and concludes that the response to changes on Broadway will be “moulded by the people that are writing the reviews”. He’s both enthusiastic and skeptical of the increase in diversity in criticism, saying that “it’s past time” to diversify voices, while expressing concern about the lack of opportunities available.
I’m eager to know what the future of theatre criticism would be like in Shenton’s ideal world. While he stresses that it’s a “fantasy”, he lists three wishes. The first of these is for it to become a “paying profession again”; the second that there are “more diverse voices”, and the third that criticism is given “more space in the papers”. We can but dream.
While Shenton is confident that “journalism is finished” and there is “no viable profession left”, it hasn’t stopped him writing. He now writes primarily for his own blog, and seems pretty pleased about the decision, saying “maybe I’m not here to make money anymore”. As theatres begin to reopen, he wants to get back to New York to see new productions like Company, The Music Man, and Flying Over Sunset. It is this excitement that I remember most from our conversation: while he may have very little faith in the future of the industry, it’s very clear that Mark Shenton loves theatre, and isn’t going to stop writing about it anytime soon.
Words by Katie Kirkpatrick.
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Image supplied by Mark Shenton