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Last Updated: Monday, 3 October 2005, 07:11 GMT 08:11 UK
Mightier than the sword
By Victoria Lindrea
BBC News entertainment reporter

Ben Brantley (credit: Brent Murray/NYTimes.com)
Brantley has worked as a theatre critic for 12 years
As part of a series of interviews and features focusing on the theatre industry, the BBC News website talks to eminent New York Times theatre critic Ben Brantley.

Ben Brantley is America's leading theatre critic - a man who can make or break a Broadway show by the flick of his pen.

As a former feature writer, fashion pundit and film critic, Mr Brantley has had a broad experience of the media.

But he believes it was his well-spent youth as a "theatre geek" and am-dram enthusiast that ultimately won Mr Brantley his post at the New York Times - and top billing among critics.

The 50-year-old critic is a reviewer who does not mince his words, but he is modest about his influence in New York's theatreland.

"On Broadway, I think reviews are less and less relevant. So much of the Broadway audience now is tourists, who want to approximate the experience of going to a theme park."

"Mamma Mia was totally critic-proof," says Mr Brantley, of the hit tribute musical.

"People come to New York to see a 'jukebox musical'. It wouldn't make a difference what a critic said. Mamma Mia would still find a huge audience and run forever."

Spamalot cast take a bow on opening night in March 2005
Spamalot is among the New York shows Brantley calls "critic-proof"

"Spamalot got very mixed reviews here," he adds. "But it still had a guaranteed audience. So much of what happens here is a repackaging of familiar material."

It's a theme to which Mr Brantley returns in his reviews, where he finds theatrical gems are increasingly found away from Broadway.

"For real creative vitality, you have to look in some of the darker side streets of Manhattan these days," says Mr Brantley - who cites Spirit, from the British ensemble Improbable Theatre, as one of his favourite shows of the moment.

"Often the most satisfying theatre is the sparsest. You get the inventiveness."

"For those smaller, more independent ventures, if you are very encouraging about a production - you can certainly help it get grants, if not audiences," explains Mr Brantley.

For real creative vitality, you have to look in some of the darker side streets of Manhattan
Ben Brantley

"But as a critic I don't think you can pull punches too much - you have to be fairly direct, no matter what the scale of the show."

"At the moment we are in the midst of 'the theatre of celebrity'. If you can get a star, preferably from TV or the movies, and especially if they are willing to take their clothes off - you are guaranteed a hit.

"People love a pan, and they love to see the mighty fall from their pedestals - but I try to go to the theatre with an open mind, despite temptation."

"Sometimes you will be pleasantly surprised. Kathleen Turner, who did nothing but take her clothes off in The Graduate, was brilliant in the recent revival of Who's Afraid of Viriginia Woolf?"

Kathleen Turner in The Graduate
Stars willing to take their clothes off "guarantee a hit"

The writer believes strong acting is crucial to creating a great piece of theatre, but adds that "performers are almost always alerted to when a critic is in the audience, so they tend to be on their best behaviour".

"There are so many factors to making a good show. You want to be surprised," says Mr Brantley, who highlights originality and consistency as key pointers to a good production.

"You want something that works as a theatrical experience, as opposed to imitating a karaoke bar or a hit movie."

"When a play takes me to a place that only theatre can, that's when I'm most satisfied."

"The most difficult thing of course is 'the shrug' - when something is just OK."

Working as a journalist in Paris as a young man, Mr Brantley spent many weekends taking in the shows in London's West End.

"When I went to London I would be like the proverbial 'kid in the candy shop', I'd be so excited."

Dominic Cooper and Stephen Campbell Moore in The History Boys (credit: Ivan Kyncl)
The History Boys was part of the National's hit season in 2004

"Unfortunately there are fewer differences between London and New York than there used to be," adds Mr Brantley, citing the creeping commercialisation of theatre in both cities.

"But I think the National Theatre has been really revitalised under Nicholas Hytner, the previous season was dynamite."

Nor is Mr Brantley particularly excited by the new season on Broadway, but he is looking forward to seeing Gabriel Byrne in Eugene O'Neill's A Touch of the Poet.

The rest of us will just have to wait for his review.

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