Warning: This episode contains plenty of Benedict Cumberbatch related discussion.
Enjoy (and, as always, thoughts and feedback are welcome)
“He’s loved of the distracted multitude, / Who like not in their judgment, but their eyes”
Shakespeare, as is so often the case, provides the perfect introduction to the matter. He may have been giving voice to Claudius’ concern about how to deal with Hamlet following the death of Polonius, but these fifteen words pithily capture the frenzy surrounding Benedict and the Bard.
Whilst I do not intend to rehash the countless articles, Twitter-debates and journalistic etiquette that preceded opening night, one cannot ignore the implications of the media circus for the production. That the show was going to sell tickets was never in doubt, but the collective madness that took hold shocked everyone. Cumberbatch may be a star name but the West End is hardly lacking in this department; Oscar winner and genuine Hollywood A-lister Bradley Cooper could be seen in his boxers in The Elephant Man, while John Goodman and Damien Lewis are flexing their stage muscles in Mamet. Both shows sold well but not close to the stratospheric demand for Hamlet.
I disregard the casual elitism of those who seem to fear the masses will come bearing placards professing their undying love, wolf-whistle the sweet prince and general treat the experience like feeding time at the zoo. My view is that if just one-tenth of the near 40,000 people who bought tickets decide that theatre might be for them then I don’t really care if the only reason they had for going was because they live in a house built of discarded copies of Sherlock fanzines.
However we must consider how audience expectations and the surrounding pressures may have impacted on the production. In the theatre we allow the illusion of being outside of reality, but it would be naïve to believe that Lyndsey Turner, Benedict Cumberbatch and all others involved did not feel the weight of hype pressing down on them. Productions face a difficult problem when the audiences’ focus is so clearly on one man; they are attempting to perform Hamlet the play, but many are watching for Hamlet the man.
As much as we like to pretend otherwise, the vast majority of blogs are read by not many people. That doesn’t reduce their value. If people are reading what you have to say, and gaining something from it then does it matter if it is 10 people or 10,000. Brand recognition, quality of writing, length of service or knowing how to game google; whatever the reason, there are few sites that hoover up the vast majority of web clicks searching for reviews.
This blog has always been comfortable with its hit count (its not the number of clicks that matters but the number of repeat visitors, ooh-er missus etc etc). And anyone who has bothered to read anything on the site will note that it contains an almost perverse desire to write in a style entirely out-of-keeping with the move to Buzzfeed listicles and short-form content designed to be read through the latest phone gadgetry.
Equally there has been a conscious desire to avoid giving star ratings. The classic 5* rating is a ridiculously unsubtle device for providing a quality rating (assuming equal banding, the difference between a 3* and 4* show could either be 1 or 39 percentage points; hardly an equal assessment of quality) and reading many many blogs, I am convinced that very few would hold true to Gaussian distribution patterns come the end of the year. Other factors do come into play (going to see shows you are more likely to like) but given a theatre review should help people make an informed decision on whether to see a show, it is hardly helpful if everything you see is a 5* classic.
Friends have called me a tough reviewer but that is because I see a lot of ‘good’ shows, and so a 3* rating for me would be indicative of a ‘good’ show. This year I have seen four shows I would definitely have given 5* to, and maybe another two that were on the cusp. However the primary reason this site doesn’t give star ratings is because people should take the time to read what it has taken the writer time to think about and write.
Ultimately its about personal choice. The web is brilliant because it doesn’t constrict you. There are no rules. This site has its own philosophy but it doesn’t seek to impose it on other people.
Yet there is also social convention. And here we get onto more unsure ground. Do we say that conventions do not apply on the web. This ventures into the land of the trolls. Most people feel that conventions, the unsaid rules that govern the functioning of society apply online. They might accept a certain loosening of the rules but we feel there are limits to this. Personal moral codes have no weight online but the majority of people would agree that issuing rape threats to female journalists for having the temerity to express an opinion is beyond the pale.
However these are the extremes. What about the everyday unwritten conventions of the blogging world. They may not matter to everyone, but break them and unleash the hellfire of Twitter upon you. And thanks to The Times, The Daily Mail and assorted publications, the journalist silly season has had the perfect content to bring this into the wider world in the form of the Barbican, the Benedict and the Bard. The preview is a theatrical convention that has held for years. You do not publish a review before press night because press night is the first night. That the media broke this is frankly ludicrous but the fall-out in the blogging community has been substantial and often quite illustrious.
The desire for the most clickbait-y post is understandable. But London theatre bloggers are a tight-knit community and breaking this code was never going to go down well. We are fully aware of the contempt and sneer that the likes of Dominic Cavendish and more ill-informed commentators hold us in. Lets not give them any more ammunition.
So the wonderful folks who have set up Theatre Bloggers (the soon-to-be-far-away Rebecca Felgate, the mysterious West End Wilma and doyenne of the South-East theatre scene, Sammi O’Neill) have come together to produce a set of blogging guidelines. These aren’t rules, they aren’t a charter, you won’t be excluded for not following every single one. Rather they are practical tips if you want your blog to have the veneer of professionalism (and if you don’t want that, then that’s ok too).
And just remember (jazz hands at the ready) – to paraphrase Matron ‘Mamma’ Morton – “when you’re good to theatre bloggers, theatre bloggers’ good to you”
Click here for the blogging guidelines.
Well Secret Theatre proves a tricky one to review. Given the whole purpose of the enterprise is for the show to be, well, secret, there are some fairly clear difficulties in talking about it without giving the whole game away.
In actual fact, press have been given permission to name the play in question. However that does not feel quite in keeping with the spirit of the event and so this review will provide some general clues and maybe a few more cryptic hints along the way – probably enough to give most readers a likely shortlist.
The production is of an existing play. Secret Theatre Lab have previously adapted Edward Scissorhands and Reservoir Dogs for live shows, but in this case the work is a regularly staged play. It is an extremely well known story. The chance of not being aware of it is very small indeed. And if you went to school in England then it will be practically zero.
It takes place in London City Island. One of those developments that rise unnoticed until you turn around one day and find that a previously unloved and forgotten corner of the city is now covered in flats being pitched at foreign traders who have a half million lying around in pocket change (not the penthouses naturally). It is canny choice of location. Not least because the half-built isolated state is perfect for a promenade production that requires both interior and exterior scenes. Everything is self-contained and there is less risk of unplanned factors derailing affairs.