by Mark Brown*

The phenomenon, which is particularly prevalent on Broadway in New York City and in London’s West End, of the celebrity-led theatre production is often fraught with difficulties. Leaving aside, for a moment, the often obscene ticket prices with which producers seek to cash-in on their lead actors’ fame, such productions are potential magnets for controversy. What if, for example, her performance as Queen Elizabeth II in Peter Morgan’s play The Audience in London disturbed by drummers, Helen Mirren goes outside in full costume and unleashes a torrent of expletives at the offenders?[1] Or, what if David Tennant, then famous throughout the UK and beyond as BBC television’s time traveller Dr Who, pulls out of his lead role in Hamlet due to injury just before opening night, leading to demands for refunds from thousands of disappointed fans who have no interest in watching his highly trained understudy?[2]

It should surprise us not at all, therefore, that the 2015 production of Hamlet in London, starring globally successful screen actor Benedict Cumberbatch, found itself in the eye of a media storm. The production opened, in preview, at the Barbican arts centre in London on August 5, 2015. Press night, the venue announced, would be almost three weeks later, on August 25. However, in breach of the accepted protocols between critics and theatre producers, two London newspapers, The Times and Daily Mail carried reviews of the opening preview performance. The Times defended their decision to publish Kate Maltby’s scathing, two-star review on the grounds, denied by producer Sonia Friedman, that a rival newspaper had made a deal whereby they would give positive coverage to the show in return for exclusive access (to Cumberbatch, one assumes).[3]

Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet
Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet

At one level, this whole storm in a London theatrical tea cup is a product of the commercial imperatives at work in the West End. The Times’ attempt to excuse its behaviour, on the (unproven) grounds that a rival newspaper had invalidated the unwritten rules of theatre criticism by entering into a positive coverage for access agreement, tells us more than enough about the murky money making involved in the celebrity theatre business. “It was ever thus!” might say the ghost of a cynical, Victorian music hall impresario. However, twenty-first-century celebrity culture, fuelled by ubiquitous broadcast technology, has, rather than killing theatre, given a massive boost to the commercial imperative around selling the film and TV star “in the flesh.”

Given the amounts of money being raked in by producers and star actors, one is tempted to celebrate the occasional controversies that problematise this lucrative business. However, in the case of the Cumberbatch Hamlet, the behaviour of The Times and the Daily Mail is indefensible. The cast and crew of any theatre production, and, more importantly, the audience, deserve to be given reviews of a show which has bedded down. This is, after all, live theatre. Every professional in the theatre and every serious theatregoer knows that a director needs to see her or his show in a few previews, and possibly make a few alterations, before it is ready to be reviewed by critics and, crucially, before audiences should be charged full price for tickets. Buying tickets to review the very first preview performance, without the knowledge or agreement of the company, is clearly outrageous.

My position on previews is similar to the argument made by John Tiffany, acclaimed director of the National Theatre of Scotland’s hit show Black Watch and Tony Award-winning Broadway musical Once, shortly after the Cumberbatch Hamlet controversy. “In theatre, previews are the first draft of a show. I strongly believe that,” he wrote.

The only way we can truly tell whether that draft works is by having an audience present. . . . As most audience members at a preview will never see the production again, you want them to be able to connect with it as much as possible. I feel that responsibility deeply, as do all directors and actors, but I also reserve the right to make mistakes as part of my process and correct them as I go along. . . . That’s why I feel angry that reviewers from the Times and the Daily Mail broke the embargo on Hamlet at the Barbican last week and reviewed it on the first performance. . .[4]

Up to this point I am in complete agreement with Tiffany. Previews are an important part of the ecology of live theatre. Directors and their casts need to test their shows in two, three, maybe even four or five, performances in front of live audiences before everyone involved can say the production is truly ready to roll. Only then should the critics be invited in to review.

John Tiffany with his 2012 Tony Award
John Tiffany with his 2012 Tony Award

For this arrangement to work, two pretty basic rules need to be followed. Firstly, the preview period needs to be reasonable; as I say, between two and five preview performances seems fair (if, barring catastrophes, your show is not ready after five performances, it should be). Secondly, the price of tickets for preview performances should be discounted significantly; as Tiffany himself acknowledges, preview audiences are serving a crucial function for theatre companies, offering themselves as part of an experiment.

If either of these rules is not respected by theatre producers, the unwritten agreement between theatre makers and audiences (including critics) breaks down. It is on this point that I part company, and sharply, with Tiffany. The director notes: “The argument has been made that it is unreasonable to expect newspapers to wait three weeks to review this play, especially given the amount of buzz around it,” but adds:

In fact, a three-week preview period isn’t really that long. On Broadway, the plays that I’ve directed previewed for at least a month and these were shows that had already run elsewhere. On Broadway, they have a healthier attitude—they let critics in over a series of nights and then on opening night there are no critics and it’s a chance to celebrate. I don’t think it’s good, culturally, to base all critical judgments on a single performance.[5]

Tiffany is right, incidentally, that it is “healthier” if not all reviews are of the same performance; that’s why, as a critic on a Sunday newspaper, I review after press night when I can. However, he is wildly, and extravagantly, wrong on everything else. He argues that, “a three-week preview period isn’t really that long,” yet, as he knows full well, in much, if not most, of the world, three weeks is often close to the length of an entire run. Tiffany himself made his name—as literary director at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre and, later, as associate director at the National Theatre of Scotland—in a theatre culture where the three-week run is the norm.

The director’s defence of the three-week preview is not only disingenuous, it is also ostentatiously pretentious. “On Broadway,” he writes, “the plays that I’ve directed previewed for at least a month.” Come on, John! You’ve made it to Broadway, so now the New York commercial theatre should become the benchmark beside which the practices of world theatre should be measured? If a three-week preview had been imposed on your breakthrough production, Black Watch, it would not have been reviewed until the last few days of its initial run on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2006; that’s if the justifiably annoyed critics agreed to attend at all. Your own success was built on a production which had a reasonable, short preview period.

I am proud of my involvement in the International Association of Theatre Critics (including as an editor of this webjournal) for many reasons, but chiefly I am proud of the organisation’s internationalism. In my experience, IATC members are fascinated by and respectful of theatre which is made in every corner of the world. For us, a Tony-winning musical on Broadway is no more interesting than the next production at the Royal District Theatre in Tbilisi or the Arko Arts Theatre in Seoul; in fact, it may, even, be less interesting. I doubt any self-respecting IATC member (or any intelligent theatre lover, for that matter) would accept the pompous assertion that a one-month Broadway preview period should be considered acceptable, in New York or anywhere else.

This business of reviewing depends on mutual respect. Yes, of course, the critics must respect the preview period. However, the preview period must also respect the critic and, more importantly, the audience. The two, three or four-week preview, which seems to exist primarily in the United States and in London, has nothing to do with the artistic process and everything to do with the desire of greedy producers to sell expensive tickets before professional critics are given the opportunity to share their opinions with the theatregoing public.

Incidentally, the Cumberbatch Hamlet, the three-week preview period of which John Tiffany defends, charged an extraordinary £85 for some preview tickets, and the fact that they were for preview performances was not even noted on the tickets.[6] I rest my case.

[1] “Dame Helen Mirren’s outburst at drummers caught on camera.” Telegraph. The Daily Telegraph, 6 May 2013. Web. 13 Nov. 2015. (accessed 13/11/2015).

[2] Pearse, Damien. “Tennant to have back surgery before Hamlet return.” Guardian. Guardian, 11 Dec. 2008. Web. 13 Nov. 2015. (accessed 13/11/2015).

[3] Tiffany, John. “Hamlet at the Barbican: don’t judge a play until press night.” The Observer. Guardian, 9 Aug. 2015. Web. 13 Nov. (accessed 13/11/2015).

[4] Tiffany, ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Bradley, Wendy. “Something is rotten in this Hamlet production—and it’s not Benedict Cumberbatch.” Guardian. Guardian, 11 Aug. 2015. Web. 13 Nov. 2015. (accessed 13/11/15).


*Mark Brown is theatre critic of the Scottish national newspaper the Sunday Herald and Scottish critic of the UK national title the Daily Telegraph. He is a member of the executive committee of the International Association of Theatre Critics, for which he is also adjunct director of young critics’ seminars. He is a member of the editorial board of Critical Stages.

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