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Opinion: Previews, Reviews, and Critical Hypocrissy

Is this an embargo I see before me? Photograph: Edit of Johan Persso's original.

To review previews, or not review previews? That is the question everyone’s talking about with Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet.

I’ve really not wanted to butt in to this whole furore with certain national newspapers publishing reviews of previews of Hamlet staring Benedict Cumberbatch. This has been a debate that has been going on for years and isn’t making any headway or new arguments. But given a nasty and somewhat hypocritical comment in a piece by Mark Shenton in London Theatre yesterday (13 August 2015), originally stating that “three major national papers broke the usual respect for embargoes on reviewing before the press night and behaved like bloggers,” I feel I must. Shenton has since edited the article to read “some bloggers”, but despite the lack lustre mea culpa, his actions have still compelled me to give my two pence on the issue.

Why Do Previews Exist?

Previews exist so that a show may have an opportunity to sort out any kinks before it officially opens on press night. The preview period is essentially a trial run that people pay to see. Many shows of established plays don’t make too many changes during previews, apart from maybe a few directorial tweaks to acting cues and approaches etc. Previews of shows are often very different from the finished results when brand new plays and musicals are concerned, sometimes cutting significant parts of the text or making major changes to the production based on how well it works in the theatre and how the preview audiences respond.

Therefore, press are invited to review on opening/press night or after, because then they’re seeing the final result and not a work in progress. Almost all PRs are very strict about this, and anyone working with PRs can find their professional relationship in jeopardy should they break rank and publish reviews of previews without prior arrangement.

Should People Be Allowed to Review Previews?

Yes and no. It’s a matter of who you are.

“[Shenton’s comment] is a grave insult to the effort and professionalism almost all of us put into critiquing.”

No Anyone who considered themselves press, such as bloggers and critics, should not. Since establishing myself as a distinct and independent critical personality, like many bloggers, I adhere to press night and embargoes, unless its a pre-arranged “bloggers preview” for which I’ve been invited to. Therefore, for Shenton to turn around and say that, “three major national papers broke the usual respect for embargoes on reviewing before the press night and behaved like bloggers,” is a grave insult to the effort and professionalism almost all of us put into critiquing. Many bloggers, especially those who belong to #LDNTheatreBloggers, the DeWynters network of bloggers, and Shenton’s own My Theatre Mates do uphold these because we all have a lot of respect for theatre and the industry. If you want to be considered a critic (whether you call yourself a blogger or not), then you either wait until after a show opens and/or work directly with a show’s PR.

“If theatres were so particular about people reviewing previews, then tickets, including the current previews at the Barbican of ‘Hamlet’, should be free of charge.”

Yes If you’re a general member of the public who has paid for a ticket, then I think you absolutely should be able to publish comments about previews. Shenton, in his article, quotes Broadway theatre owner Jordan Roth saying, “Would a restaurant critic sneak into the kitchen, take a spoonful of soup off the stove and print that it needs more seasoning? And if she did, how would that be indicative of what that chef is capable of and how would that help readers decide if they wanted to eat there?”

This is a very crude comparison. Why? Because the preparation isn’t what you’re paying to have. What you paid for is a presented end product. If you’re paying for something, you have every right to voice an opinion, especially if someone is making money off what they’re giving you. If theatres were so particular about people reviewing previews, then tickets, including the current previews at the Barbican of Hamlet, should be free of charge. Only then can they say, “well this isn’t finished, so don’t review” because they’re not causing a financial detriment to their audience and aren’t making any potential profit off of an unfinished product. If people are paying for something, then it should be considered a finished product.

If you just consider yourself a member of the public who just wants to voice what you thought of something you’ve paid for, then you’re more than welcome to. But make your choice and beware the consequences.

Do Bloggers Adhere To The Rules?

The vast majority of us do for the vast majority of the time. There are some reviewers out there, especially with those who are starting out in theatre criticism, that do review previews in order to try and establish themselves. I myself have done a couple of these myself when I first started writing: wide-eyed and ignorant (and not very good). But then, they should always put a caveat in their piece to highlight that the review was written on a preview show and is subject to changes. I certainly wouldn’t encourage aspiring critics to do this, but if you must, then be transparent about it if you want to be taken at least a little bit seriously.

Those who (in)famously publish reviews off the back of previews, such as the West End Whingers, buy tickets and do not curry favour with PRs and therefore already posture themselves markedly outside the press circle. Therefore, changing the wording of the offending line to “some bloggers” is certainly not an untruth. But initially making the derogatory remark undermines Shentons own efforts to nurture theatre blogging talent by suddenly using our status as a derogatory label for those who are breaking the rules, which is not only insulting but bizarre given his own blogging involvement.

“…bloggers are critics as what they do is critique a show. A blog is merely the platform for which they critique on…”

The problem here is the label “bloggers”, which currently encompasses both those who adhere to a professional standard and those who don’t. The way I’ve always seen it is that bloggers are critics as what they do is critique a show. A blog is merely the platform for which they critique on, compared to in a newspaper or a magazine. Therefore, referring to us (and ourselves) as “bloggers” causes complications and upsets like the one Shenton has caused with the theatre critiquing community who practise their critiquing on blogs. Therefore, maybe we need to redefine how we refer to ourselves to reflect the impact critics who write on blogs have on the critical canon.

Are Preview Periods A Sacred Norm?

Not at all. Opera, classical music, and ballet are prime examples of where previews don’t exist. Press are bussed into opera houses and concert halls on the very first performance. There’s no chance to make changes after this, even if there’s parts of a new score or libretto that simply don’t work. Why? Because people are paying for what they’re seeing. A lack of previews isn’t unique to the classical arts either. Many fringe shows, due to their short runs, will not have previews. If they do, it’s usually one or two performances, not weeks. Theatres like Stratford Theatre Royal have official “Blogger Previews” to encourage and widen their promotional capacity. The Edinburgh Fringe Festival is another exception. Many of the reviews that you’ll see promoting a show, particularly in the early weeks of the festival, will be off the back of runs they’ve done at previous festivals and theatres, or even dedicated “Edinburgh Previews” for which critics had been invited to.

grand hotel

Grand Preview! Victoria Serra (front) as Flaemmchen in ‘Grand Hotel’. Photograph: Courtesy of Aviv Ron.

Furthermore, depending on your reputation as a critic, you can sometimes be allowed to review previews, as long as this is something agreed in advance with the production and the PR. Influential and well known critics sometimes have many demands on their time and sometimes can’t make opening night or any night afterwards. Therefore, they’re allowed to come and review previews as if it were the finished production. Shenton himself did this very recently with his five star review of Grand Hotel, not being present on opening night himself and publishing the review minutes after the show’s final curtain. He’s allowed to, and he’s done nothing wrong in doing so. Michael Billington at the Guardian has done this for other shows, too, and now doubt have many other high-ranking critics.

However, it does significantly weaken his argument about bloggers reviewing previews as it starts to show that previews are less about making sure a show is ready and much more about keeping tabs and control on the press. Technically, there could have been significant changes made to the show after Shenton had written his review, although it is unlikely, and the production’s agreement to allow him to review a preview would have been on how well they knew Grand Hotel was ready. But theoretically, the review could potentially be commenting on something significantly different. If previews were that important, Shenton shouldn’t have been allowed to review the show at all, and another writer at The Stage should have filled his seat on opening night. For the majority of the time, critics, especially bloggers, will either have to arrange to see the show at a later date (something which PRs have are very accommodating at doing) or not at all.

Then, there’s other shows like LIFT. After receiving poor to luke-warm reviews on its official opening night, it underwent further dramaturgy and changes. Afterwards, reviews done on the official opening night were considered no longer relevant, posing the question why did they bother having critics review the show if its entire run would turn out to be one big preview of a constantly changing show that is supposed to be a finished product. It just goes to show that the previews are not necessarily the Holy Grail of artistic development that they’re made out to be.

However, where a production chooses to have previews, then this must be honoured. Yes, there are some wider ethical arguments to be had about them, especially when it comes to the opinions of a paying public, but this is the state of play and reviewers abide by the expectations regarding reviewing previews.

So What’s Your Beef With Shenton?

My issue with Shenton’s article is that he needs to try to be a bit more aware and humble about the liberties bestowed to him by his highly regarded status. His ability to review previews means he can’t be so dogmatic when it comes to debates such as this, as he risks being hypocritical. He has reviewed previews as a hard-earned exception to the rule, but this in itself throws the sanctity of the preview periods into question and the argument for keeping press and bloggers out of previews, making him perhaps not the most appropriate of advocates.

Furthermore, I really wish Shenton would stop using bloggers as examples of bad press. He really needs to decide whether he supports bloggers or not. Indeed, the Hamlet fiasco has gone to show that high-ranking critics of Shenton’s own status quo can actually behave a lot worse. It only goes to feed into the toxic “us v them” mentality that I’ve already talked about at length, and when he’s supposedly making his own strides to celebrate blogging with My Theatre Mates, he needs to decided what his opinions on bloggers actually are. His initial comment is a rather revealing and a little troubling window into Shenton’s own considered status between him and his blogging peers. The backtrack to change his wording to “some bloggers” isn’t exactly a peace pipe either, as there’s still an attached status that still brings the blogging platform into disrepute. Why “some bloggers”? Why not “those who have no regard for critical etiquette or professionalism”, as Hamlet has gone to show that mainstream reviewers are just as susceptible to misconduct as anyone else?

Hamlet plays at the Barbican, London, EC2Y 8DS, until 31 October 2015. For tickets, please contact the venue.

Grand Hotel plays at the Southwark Playhouse, London, SE1 6BD, until 5 September 2015. Tickets are £18 (concessions available). To book, visit http://southwarkplayhouse.co.uk.

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