A reponse to Matt Trueman and the future of previews

There has been something of a virtual explosion over the last 24 hours to a post by Matt Trueman on the Guardian blog regarding the subject of previews and bloggers.

As perhaps was the intention it has provoked fierce response with strong views being aired on both sides of the debate. I have thought long and hard about responding. On one hand I think the best approach is to ignore the piece and not fuel this increasingly futile blogger v critic debate. As time has gone on though I do think the central argument is so fatally flawed that it does merit a response.

In the spirit of openness though I do want to set out my background first. I trained as a Stage Manager, have worked backstage, in theatre administration, in press and marketing and yes as a freelance theatre critic. So yes I’ve experienced the free drinks, free tickets, programmes and the odd free canapé. On the other hand I do also blog. Mainly in the regions where previews are less prevalent but also in London.

I’m going to keep this response brief as many have succinctly responded what a load of tosh many of the points in the blog are but there are a couple of points I’d like to make.

I’m also perhaps going to take a slightly different tact and ask why we produce theatre in the first place? There seems to be a lot of talk about the rights of performers, directors, writer’s et al but we seem to have forgotten the consumer. As Alastair Smith pointed out in his article that triggered Matt’s response, the position of previews themselves need examining

Yes previews are valuable as a way of refining the production, however they should be seen as tweaks however not an excuse for under rehearsal. Yes pieces of dialogue may need changing, timings altered to allow for audience reaction and yes pace does take time to settle in but if you are talking major surgery you should be asking yourself if the show is ready for the public?

What message are you sending your customers if the product you are charging them for the privilege to see is far from finished? How likely are they to return to see another one of your productions if the product they see isn’t ready?

Now there is a wafer thin argument that this is acceptable if you charge reduced prices but how much should this reduction be? As the trend now seems to be to charge full price from the very first performance in what way can it actually be classed as a preview?

Some regional theatres have tried to bridge this gap between rehearsal room and public by opening up their final dress rehearsal to the public at a nominal fee. For instance today theatre goers in Leicester can queue at the Curve box office from 12pm for tickets to the Dress rehearsal of Umbrellas Of Cherbourg. The theatre and producers make a call on the day if the show is ready for public viewing and if the public will be allowed in. They recognise if the show is ready the feedback from audiences is vital and such feedback is often used on social media channels to promote the show.

If however we follow Matt Trueman’s argument what happens in Leicester? That show has the double whammy of being in preview and prior to London following Matt’s argument should all comment be embargoed until the National Critics take their seats in the Gielgud in 6 weeks time?

Some theatres and producers have realised that media is changing and that like it or not that social media has changed the face of theatre opinion and comment. Its a more consumer savvy world and in these times of financial pressure there is increased competition for the public pound. Should we not be celebrating the fact that through the expansion of Social Media that coverage of theatre has never been more accessible?

Nobody is saying that a blog is the same as a newspaper review and there is room for both.

Sadly while he may have been trying to generate a discussion on the topic, Matt’s patronising and ultimately unconvincing argument has done little but cause anger and frustration. In the Social Media week should we not be looking at how we can use the medium rather than stifle it? Time to stop the endless round of ‘ban the blogs’ posts and learn to work together rather than the constant sniping.

For some other responses well worth reading try:


Much Ado About Nothing – Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds

2011 seems to be the year for Much Ado About Nothing. The much-publicised David Tennant/Catherine Tate production, the Shakespeare’s Globe staging and, first out of the blocks, the Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds.

Director Abigail Anderson has embraced the intimacy of the Regency playhouse and produced a chamber version of Shakespeare’s battle of the sexes. The audience here are not mere observers but co-conspirators in the plot. House lights remain on throughout and asides are not only directed to the audience but the audience is positively acknowledged. In a play, more than most, centred on overhearing snippets of gossip here the audience are fully complicit in the action.

Much like Bury St Edmunds boy Sir Peter Hall’s current Twelfth Night at the National Theatre, this approach focuses attention on the text, though sadly it also shares the same feeling that, somehow, the comedy has been overlooked in favour of this textual clarity.

Much Ado is often played as a bawdy romp but this is a much more static production; there are moments of comic tomfoolery that delight but the overall impression is of a staid affair. At times the production seems over long and in need of an injection of pace. More variety of blocking would also aid engagement of the audience, many scenes being played with characters standing in line across the stage speaking dialogue directly to the audience.

At the heart of Much Ado is the pivotal relationship, or more accurately the fear of relationship, between Beatrice and Benedick. This is classic battle of the sexes as wit and wordplay come to the fore. Polly Lister gives a wonderfully feisty Beatrice, outwardly strong but also full of doubt when mislead by her cousin and maid. As her counterpoint Nicholas Tizzard’s Benedick seems less secure in his affections, easily led by the mischievous rumours left by his compatriots.

When the comic moments are allowed to the fore they work well. Nick Underwood’s Borachio, a fine comic turn full of song, works well and the reactions from Benedick and Beatrice to the overheard plotting delight as they make full use of the Theatre Royal’s stage and auditorium. Careful thought, though, does need to be given to the positioning of some of these scenes given, the Regency theatre’s challenging sight lines.

Other performances are less successful. Ellie Kirk’s Hero suffers from projection problems, making emotional connection difficult, while James Wallace needs to pull his Don John back from a flaccid caricature of Alan Rickman to make a more rounded villain.

Libby Watson’s simple set of frames and sliding panels works well, effectively lit by Mark Howland, who manages the difficult task of balancing stage lighting with house lighting. Pat Whymark’s evocative score provides a strong sense of place underneath the action and, when combined with Yael Lowenstein’s choreography, provides the requisite emotional release.

Overall there is much potential here; the company just needs to relax into the piece more to allow both the comedy and tragedy to flow in what is one of Shakespeare’s more naturalistic pieces. The piece does seem at the moment woefully slow in places and attention to pace and blocking should easily resolve these issues.

Much Ado About Nothing is one of Shakespeare’s most accessible plays and the delights of Beatrice and Benedick sparring will enthral many newcomers to the Bard of Avon’s work. And, ultimately, isn’t that the aim of any Shakespeare production?

Photo: Ellie Kirk and Suzanne Ahmed in Much Ado About Nothing. Photographer Keith Mindham.

Julius Caesar – The Roundhouse

In these times of arts cutbacks and financial woes, the RSC are not stinting on fake blood. There production of Julius Caesar may look traditional but this isn’t a sanitised vision of Rome. Here we get blood and guts by the bucket load.

Although set in period there is something strangely topical about this Julius Caesar. With the current political unrest sweeping through the Middle East, a tale about power struggles, political deals and betrayal seems strangely apt. Coincidental timing it may be but it does add a sense of urgency to the piece.

Lucy Bailey’s production creates a sense of near anarchy in Rome, balancing the political speeches with a much needed rebellious air. William Dudley’s simple design, aided by projections of marching armies allows the action to flow freely and turns the three hour piece into what seems a much shorter affair.

There has been some talk that this current RSC ensemble doesn’t quite gel. In Julius Caesar however the ensemble works well. With a large cast of characters it can be difficult to follow each sub plot and twist; however the ensemble works well here to create a sense of the epic Rome.

Particular performances do stand out however. Sam Troughton’s politically misguided Brutus is both manipulative and moving. Greg Hicks in the title role works well to show the two sides of Cesar, inwardly the man of doubt while putting on a public front as the great showman.

It is however Darrel D’Silva’s Mark Anthony that has the finest performance of the night. A performance of power and command, it is easy to understand why the rabble followed him. D’Silva’s delivery of the famous ‘Friends, Romans, Countrymen’ speech is a fine example of political oration.

Julius Caesar may not be the Bard’s finest hour and isn’t easily accessible to those not up to speed with Roman history. Lucy Bailey’s production however does make it intensely watchable, though not for those squeamish at the sight of blood.

Greenland – National Theatre

How many playwrights does it take to draft a piece on global warming? According to the National Theatre it takes four but sadly Greenland, the end result, is not something any of the quartet will be listing on their greatest achievement lists.

There is so much potential here, an emotive topic, first class writers, the technical facilities of the National Theatre all offer great potential for a piece of contemporary drama. Sadly it fails on nearly every level, instead of a piece of thought provoking drama it turns into a 2hour deathly dull lecture that doesn’t drive any view, pro or anti climate change, forward.

Moira Buffini, Matt Charman, Penelope Skinner and Jack Thorne have created multiple and occasional interwoven story arcs that ultimately don’t go anywhere. A raft of characters debate the effects of climate change but we don’t really ever get to see more that a faint outline of character and never a resolution to the various arguments surrounding the subject.

It does look incredibly stylish – with a full raft of theatrical effects thrown at it. Stylistically it resembles Enron but while that show was inventive and actually used effect to drive narrative forward, Greenland seems to use the spectacle as just a desperate attempt to stop the audience from walking out.

Instead of stirring any debate on the vitally important subject of climate change the only thing that stirs at the end of this show is sympathy for the cast and anger that this dire, ill conceived mess could ever reach the stage. Truly awful.

Vernon God Little – Young Vic

A bloody massacre has descended on to small town America. A shooting at the local high school has left 16 dead and, as the media frenzy begins, 15-year-old Vernon Gregory Little finds himself at the centre of the storm.

His best friend carried out the shootings before turning the gun on himself and, without a live perpetrator, the locals are turning their blame on Vernon.

Adapted from DBC Pierre’s Booker Prize-winning novel, Vernon God Little returns to the Young Vic following its 2007 run in an updated production. It’s a surreal world as larger than life characters and improbable events collide until near anarchy ensues. Add in a hefty dose of country music and line dancing and it’s clear from the outset this isn’t going to be a traditionally staged play.In many ways it is like watching a stage adaptation of a graphic novel but, despite the surreal nature, with recent events in Arizona, the revival seems incredibly topical and relevant.

As befits the subject this is rapid fire staging, walls, props and furniture wheel on and off stage at an alarming pace, snatches of music permeate the script and some wonderfully observed over the top set pieces add to the whole bizarre set up.Director Rufus Norris sensibly keeps the action fast and furious and, while tipping a knowing nod to the absurd, keeps just the right side of ridicule. Ian MacNeils designs are wonderfully inventive and witty, conjuring up surprise after surprise with clever transformations.

The central role of Vernon is a dream of a role for a young actor and Joseph Drake in his professional début excels. It would be easy to overplay this role but Drake delivers a nicely understated performances that hints at a much darker torment barely simmering behind the outwardly meek and mild exterior. There’s something mixed up about his Vernon, not surprising as we discover his background during the piece, but also a sense of innocence and vulnerability.

Supporting Drake is a strong supporting ensemble, many playing multiple characters in this mad-cap town. Particularly strong are Clare Burts’ Mom, Johnnie Fiori’s powerhouse Pam and Luke Brady as a nicely subtle but vocally impressive spirit of gunman Jesus.

This was a preview performance and so there is some slight tweaking still to be done. Sound balance in some of the musical numbers needs attention as we miss some of the humour in the chosen lyrics while the lighting department need to address a couple of dark spots.

Overall, though, this is an impressive production. What on paper sounds an unworkable mix of musical, dancing, comedy and tragedy translates well. The sheer inventiveness, dark humour and pace thrills and, once you enter into this madcap world, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable ride.

Five – Jerwood Dance House Studio

Theatre at its best stirs the emotions, tugs at the heart strings, and leaves an audience mentally challenged and enriched. Theatre can be engaging and only hit a few of these things but all too rarely you see a play that shakes your very core. Five is one such play.

As we reach the 66th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz it’s more important than ever we remember the atrocities that took place there. As time takes the first hand witnesses, work such as this plays a vital role in ensuring that the same horrors can never be allowed to happen again.

Lorena Cenci’s new play looks at five former women prisoners of the infamous death camp. Each has her own story to tell but, given the horrors they have witnessed, there is a surprising amount of hope.

Tales of love, loyalty, survival and music permeate the horror but, for every slight glimmer of light, there is the feeling of betrayal, hurt and despair.

Encouraged to share their experiences by a narrator, slowly the women show they share a common bond enforced by their mutual experience and how their time in the camp has shaped their future or dashed their dreams.

Staged with effective use of archive images, evocative lighting, and well integrated music. this one act play flows with cinematic clarity. Co-directors Helen Wheatley and Cenci herself allow the horrors of events to speak for themselves without turning them into melodrama.

To pull off such challenging material requires total commitment from the cast and there is not one weak link in the company. Colin Lee Bennett, Molly Scurrell, Sheila Garnham, Hattie Bennett, Jane Cole and Sally-ann Scurrell all give exceptionally strong performances, instilling each of their characters with a quiet dignity regardless of the degradation they have been subjected to.

Five is a story that must be told, and the horrors of the Holocaust need to be remembered. This production will enable generations to come to listen, learn and understand what happened in Auschwitz and the other death camps.

It may be painful and emotionally draining but it is also essential viewing.

The Last 5 Years – Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds

It is a welcoming trend to see local companies tackling new musical material. Sure, classics such as The Sound of Music and Oklahoma! have their place but there is a wealth of new material out there that deserves to be seen.

Jason Robert Brown’s The Last 5 Years is one such jewel. A one-act, two-hander musical that looks at a couple’s short but tempestuous relationship. He is an up an coming writer, she a struggling actress. They fall in love, argue and split up. All sounds pretty standard musical fare but Brown’s witty score has a twist. We follow Cathy’s life in reverse chronological order while we follow husband/ex Jamie’s story in a more conventional order. Story arcs briefly overlap in the middle while they marry but, apart from that, they wend their separate way.

It’s not an easy plot device to pull off but one that Half Hour Call’s production manages with aplomb. Simple staging, complete with onstage band, focuses attention rightly onto the couple and provides an effective frame for Brown’s song cycle. Think Lloyd Webbers Tell Me On A Sunday meets Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along and you get the idea.

Comic numbers mix with soul-searching ballads to create a musical map of hope, love and despair as the balance of power shifts in the couple’s relationship.

At the heart of the piece are two impressive performances from Birgitta Kenyon and Christopher Longman. It’s a tough call to hold an hour a half show with just two performers but it’s a challenge the duo rise to admirably, delivering the complex score with deceptive ease.

Credit should also go to Paul Schofield’s musical direction of the onstage band. Played with passion and energy the rich score soars through the Theatre Royal.

The Last 5 Years has gained something of a cult following since its premiere and this spot on production shows why.

Jason Robert Brown has shown that big is not necessarily better and that musical theatre can be topical and fresh. With this production Half Hour Call show they are a company to watch.

King Lear – Donmar Warehouse

King Lear is giving Hamlet a run for its money as play of the moment right now. We’ve have a rush of Danish princes and now it’s the turn of mad Monarchs as a raft of Lears take to the stage. Much like the Hamlet productions it is unfair to compare wildly different interpretations, how ever strong that temptation proves to be.

In Michael Grandage’s Donmar Warehouse, King Lear, this heaviest of Shakesperian tragedies, seems to virtually fly by. Only a few minor nips and tucks have been made to the script but the show is played with such pace that is seems like much more radical surgery has taken place. This fast pace, however, works well, allowing the audience to be swept along on a tide of emotion. Played against a simple wooden plank set, this is a timeless production, evoking period while never defining it. It does allow, much like Peter Hall’s Twelfth Night at the National, a closer focus on text, turning this epic tragedy into a devastating chamber pieces.

At the heart of any production of this play is of course the performance of Lear himself and Derek Jacobi joins the list of great Lears. This is a performance that reaches deep into the troubled King’s emotions and lays them bare for all to see; from the beginnings of insanity to the blood chilling howl at the death of Cordelia, Jacobi’s performance is utterly mesmerising. In the midst of the storm his voice drops to a whisper as he shares his darkest thoughts with an engrossed audience hanging on every word. Rarely has the complexity of this usurped King been so vividly portrayed.

Of course King Lear is more than a solo show and this is a fine ensemble production. Justine Mitchell’s initially restrained Regan shows her true colours as she revels in the blinding of Gloucester, while Gina McKee’s Goneril balances sensuality with a rod of steel as she manipulates both her husband and Edmund. Pippa Bennett-Warner’s Cordelia balances the manipulation of her plotting sisters, playing her with a direct honesty.

While for young actors Hamlet may be the challenge to face, for our more senior actors it’s Lear that provides that emotional and mental challenge. King Lear isn’t, nor should it ever be, easy viewing but in this production Jacobi and company manage to make it fresh, gripping and relevant.

You may leave emotionally shaken but this is a Lear that will stick in your memory for many a year.

The Skriker – Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds

You don’t go to a Caryl Churchill for an easy ride. Her trademark is to use complex structure and dialogue that require an audience to work to follow plot and character.

Her 1994 piece The Skriker is perhaps one of her most surreal works. Outwardly it seems that a malevolent spirit is causing havoc with a pregnant woman. There’s also some sub plots regarding mental illness, parenting and possibly even child abuse. I say possibly because the plot is so complex it is never clear what the message here is.

It’s an ambitious play to pull off by any company, an even more ambitious feat for a youth theatre group to try. Such bravery should be applauded however the Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds Young Company never quite pulls the challenge off.

Written originally as a three-hander, the Company has expanded the role of the title spirit into a multicharacter chorus. While this does give scope for some wonderful over the top creations it does make it even more difficult to follow Churchill’s rapid fire, free falling word association dialogue.

A mix of theatrical devices; movement, mime, mask work and circus also serve to distance engagement. Sometimes less is more and the expansion into a larger scale piece, while innovative, doesn’t serve the piece well.

Despite the confusion, however, there are some nice performances from the young company who admirably manage Churchill’s rapid fire dialogue. While some more focus on diction, character, and stagecraft would benefit, overall the company work well together.

The Young Company should be congratulated on their brave programming choice; lets hope that future productions are equally bold but ones that allow the obvious talent more opportunity to shine.

Twelfth Night – Cottesloe

Sir Peter Hall’s 80th birthday present from the National Theatre was the opportunity to direct his Daughter Rebecca in Twelfth Night. It’s a piece Hall has visited four times in his long career but in this production more than ever he focuses on the text over staging.

Staged on an almost bare stage in the Cottesloe, with only an autumnal canopy and miniature houses as backdrop, this is easily a production that could equally work well on radio than on stage. Each line tends to be a master class in Shakespearian delivery, every inflection and nuance carefully considered and delivered.

Rebecca Hall, as separated shipwrecked twin Viola is a delight. In the intimacy of the Cottesloe hers is a highly detailed performance, saying just as much with silence and the slightest movement as she does with her lines.

There are also Shakesperian comedic delivery master classes from Simon Callow as a wonderfully over the top Sir Toby Belch and Charles Edwards as the foppish Sir Andrew Aguecheek.

Simon Paisley Day’s Malvolio is perhaps darker in tone than often played but his fall from grace and torment is powerfully achieved here.

Other characters fair less well. Marton Csoka’s delivery as Orsino seems out of place with the remainder of the production while Amanda Drew’s Olivia seems oddly detached from any sexual tension.

There are moments, especially in the first half, when the focus on text and delivery does slow the pace down painfully, threatening to derail the comedy. There also seems to be a spark of passion missing in this tale of mistaken identity and lust.

Overall it looks and sounds beautiful and the textual focus does allow the beauty of the language to shine through. It may not be the most engaging Twelfth Night ever staged but it does show that Sir Peter Hall is one of our leading experts in understanding the nuances of the Bards text.