Alistair Beaton, the author of The Accidental Leader, one of five short plays now running at the Arts Theatre in London under the collective title A View from Islington North, wonders whether previews have had their day. And hopes they haven’t.
The recent row at the National Theatre about the critics’ free extra ticket reflects a much bigger issue: namely, what is the role of the traditional critic in the age of social media? There’s a lot of unease around this question.
It’s undoubtedly the case that the theatre benefits from the considered opinions of men and women who have spent years of their lives steeped in theatre, bringing to their reviews a profound knowledge and understanding and love of the theatre. But for this to function properly an elaborate set of conventions is necessary, not least that the critic will refrain from reviewing the production until the officially-designated press night.
Last week, A View from Islington North had its first preview. Directed by Max Stafford-Clark, it comprises five short plays, one each by Mark Ravenhill, Stella Feehily, David Hare, Caryl Churchill and myself, all taking satirical aim at some aspect of contemporary British society. My own, The Accidental Leader, is about an attempt to launch a coup against the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. The others deal with such subjects as sexism at Westminster, Conservative confusions about the meaning of freedom, the commodification of the individual, and the ongoing trauma of the Iraq War. How these five very distinctive plays would sit together in one evening was a mystery to all of us. So it felt like the first preview would be even more important than normal.
“If someone goes public on the basis of a production that is still a work in progress, then the whole idea of previews begins to be undermined.”
Within hours of the curtain coming down that first evening, the Telegraph ran what can only be described as a review. The reviewer, Tim Auld, made it clear that his response was a ‘first view’, but it still caused a few raised eyebrows. It might have caused something much angrier than raised eyebrows had the headline not been ‘Satire with Style’. In other words, Tim Auld liked it. And because he liked it, was I upset that our very first preview had, effectively, been reviewed? Not the least bit. Because when it comes to the critics we playwrights have double standards. We don’t want the rules to be bent, but when they are, if it suits us, we’re ready to look the other way.
I think we’re all confused about the issue. If someone goes public on the basis of a production that is still a work in progress, then the whole idea of previews begins to be undermined. And previews are incredibly useful. They serve the interests of the production and of theatregoers alike. It’s really only when something you’ve written is put before a paying audience that you can begin to assess how well it works.
This is particularly true of comedy. No matter how experienced you may be, it is impossible to be 100% confident about where the laughs will come. The most lovingly-crafted, devastatingly original piece of wit may be met with stony silence, and the weakest gag met with gales of laughter. It’s a similar experience with a musical; it’s just incredibly hard to get it right before it’s been put in front of an audience. That’s the great thing and the painful thing about previews. It’s the author’s first meeting with the truth.
If there’s someone sitting in the stalls ready to eviscerate the production online within minutes, that’s a pity, but it’s probably something we’ll have to learn to live with. Let’s just view bloggers and critics alike as contributors to a debate, not final arbiters of taste. Because the only final arbiter is the audience.