I recently attended a press night to see a new version of a classic which to all intents and purposes I should have read but hadn’t. I therefore knew very little about it and so was glad when I was sent an immense amount of information from one of the co-producers of the show. As I gratefully pored over these tomes, I realised the amount of propaganda that was going into this literature. Each process was described as perfectly appropriate to the inner workings of the text; this team were obviously superhuman in their ability to deal with this difficult masterpiece. I immediately stopped and decided to go in blind (a scarier but cleaner prospect) and I think it was the best thing I could have done. It meant that I judged the show on the merits of what was before me and not any prepared research.
Obviously this was biased source material but I started to question how important is it to do any research at all before seeing a show. It’s a scary thing to voice your opinions on new work – there are no established rights and wrongs. But it’s equally scary, if you’re starting out, to sound off on established texts: what if you make a massive gaff and are mocked by some of the ‘clever clever’ hyenas that populate this profession? It is expected of a critic to have an extended knowledge of theatre, and the majority do, but if for some reason you are tackling something new to you is it a good idea for them to read up on the play and production beforehand or embrace this virgin eye and go in unprepared and fresh? Can we brave taking a layman’s view and hope that solid storytelling that will see us through?
Different writers seem to have different thoughts on this. For me it tends to depend on the show and company, and sometimes even just if I have time or not. Preparation, preparation, preparation was drilled into me at school – but is this a hard and fast rule, or something to be taken with a pinch of salt; should we trust our own instincts and let knowledge come through experience or sit at our books like studious children?