Deconstructing the First Night Phenomenon

Let’s face it, critics need to re-join the real world and boycott opening night.

The rose theatre

Image credit: The Rose Theatre

As the plastic wrappings are lifted from the individually cut sandwiches, the cold white wine mists the glasses and the petit fours glisten, temptingly at the far end of the table, we queue in awkward fashion and wait our turn to be served. Each pair stands a polite distance off from the next; no one pushes or steps on each other’s toes, or cranes their necks to see if there are going to be any sausage rolls left, this is not a social family gathering. We are professionals, who have gathered not to enjoy a meal together but to work, and the sandwiches aren’t the only things wrapped up in this function room, we are.

Plastic Wrapper

Image credit: Simon-catering-disposables

In the years I have been critiquing as a blogger, up until now I have retained my anonymity as an independent, unattached to any publication but my own. I paid for my ticket, chose my date, showed up at the same time as the rest of the audience and sat amongst them, I bought a glass of wine (but not an ice cream) at the interval, and though my little black book and frantic scribbling o­ccasionally raised an eyebrow, I was left relatively to my own devices. But today, I have been sent by an editor to the world premiere of April de Angelis’ My Brilliant Friend at The Rose Theatre, Kingston Upon Thames to review for a publication. It’s opening night, or rather opening day. The show is a two-parter and a two-parts in one day edition has been put on specially. I walk quite literally up the red carpet that has been laid out, complete with red velvet rope. I skip the Box Office queue, as my stalls ticket is set apart at a separate table by the door with my name and ‘comp’ printed across it. I smile politely at the beaming press assistant, and am invited upstairs and away from the throng to indulge in a complimentary drink. We have been pre-informed that a light dinner will be served in the function room between Parts One and Two. We won’t even have to leave the building.

 

First nights are special, aren’t they? They’re an occasion. There is a buzz, an atmosphere, a greater possibility of spying a famous face or two in the crowd. If you book tickets for an opening night you are usually doing so consciously for this reason. But in my experience, regular theatre goers will normally avoid first night’s, and opt for an alternative date where the best seats in the house aren’t already taken by people not paying to be there, but paid to be; where the queue for interval drinks doesn’t double as half the bar is roped off for ‘special guests’. First nights are the haunt of press, family members, friends of the cast, celebrity spotters and after-party freeloaders. First nights are an occasion, because they are not a normal night. They are the deciding night, and an air of anticipation hangs in the atmosphere like nitrous oxide; light, invisible, slightly euphoric and potentially toxic in excess quantities.

 

‘No man is an island’, so said John Donne, well no critic is, either when they go to the theatre. Every theatre production is a sum of its three parts, that which is on the stage (the actors, set, spectacle), that which is off it (the audience) and that which surrounds it (the theatre itself). Each of these three parts makes it into a critic’s review, whether they are conscious of it or not. Theatre is set apart by its liveness, and that liveness is a conversation between these parts. So if an opening night is not a normal night, and the audience is not a normal audience, what makes these are the best conditions in which to review a show? An audience will give a lukewarm appraisal at the end of even a one star performance, but I can’t see friends, parents and freeloaders giving anything but a rapturous applause, or abandoning their seats in the stalls to leave in protest at even the most offensive or tiresome piece of theatre. On opening night, more than most. the audience are performing too.

 

To return to the misted glasses of wine and petit fours, is physically separating the audience from the critic in the critical pre, inter and post theatre moments a way of restricting the audience’s influence on the critic? The buzz, the chit chat, It’s like a whole part of the theatre experience is missing. We are holed up together on our desert island, with a free bar and too much to eat. A (mostly) old (mostly) boys club, who should be going out there and getting their hands dirty, not staying sanitised in our plastic wrap. I am not saying I go out of my way to snoop in on audience’s conversations, but the art of theatre cannot be experienced in isolation. Getting a feel for the venue and the audience, the cultural context, does aid in processing what you have just seen even if the critic does not go on to reference it explicitly in their review. I commend What’s On Stage blogger Matt Truman for abandoning his balcony seat halfway through Romeo and Juliet at the Globe earlier this week and joining the audience standing in the pit, for about one third of the price. Only from the melee of the cheap seats was he able to make observations on the audience’s reactions: “It connects with an audience less fussed with meaning than feeling”, which contributed to his critical understanding of the piece. He still gave it a scathing doing over, but at least his critical perspective was better informed.

 

On the other hand, what about the smaller venues? They don’t have the capacity to separate out critics from audience in the way many of the larger venues do, and indeed if they did so on opening night they might find themselves with not a lot of audience left. In some of London’s smaller fringe venues, given a good turnout the press and guests would easily outnumber other audience members, if they were able to fit any at all with the family & friends mob included.

 

Criticism is at odds with normal audience behaviour, to be a critic is to be acutely aware of your surrounds and self-conscious within that surrounding to a highly-disciplined degree. In order to do this, there has to be a degree of critical distance. Do critics laugh? Richard Hamilton posed the answer to this question, in his 1968 artwork The Critic Laughs, a manicured set of false teeth that jiggle about at the touch of a button. It is the unnatural artifice of the plastic of the teeth and the motorised motion that are at the root of his point, the critic’s laugh is synthetic, robotic and can be turned on and off or detached at will. That is not to say that the critic can’t enjoy theatre, but the critical distance reigns their enthusiasm in.

The Critic Laughs

Image credit: MOMA

 

A house filled only with critics would be a dispiriting affair to the other part of this equation, that which is on the stage, the actors themselves. As with any relationship, it goes two ways, and the performers are inevitably affected by who’s in the house on any given night. A lack of emotional feedback, which can be sensed in the quality of the silence as well as in the laughs, sniffs, cheers and mutterings, can throw even the most professional of actor’s performances off balance. The added pressure of their presence alone can change the tone of the evening to one of anxiety, which has an inevitable knock on effect on the quality of the performance. Opening night may heighten the tension and intensity, or if any one of the performers is a bag of nerves it may just cause the play to fall flat. And then that’s it. All the critics see it fall, and the reputations of those involved are in print, and all over the internet.

 

From the atmosphere of the function room at The Rose, I would also claim critics feel a sense of pressure too. Did they laugh and joke together? Swap stories? Discuss the play? No, because they are expected to churn out an original piece of criticism, not only based on their personal experience but to the tune of what their editor and readership expects of them. Unlike the theatre audience members who will likely discuss their experience, bringing new thoughts, ideas and perspectives to the table, the critic is limited to discuss only with the plus one on their ticket, if they’ve brought one. I would love to be proven wrong, but I got the distinct feeling it I had gone over to join Michael Billington at his table, and offered him even a crisp, let alone my thoughts on Act 1, this would have been a critic faux pas. After all, whilst the performers are competing for our attention, we have yet to compete for our audience’s, and it’s a competitive market out there.

 

Professional critics are dropping, or rather being dropped, like flies and many are looking to social media and the world of bloggers, as a source of blame. We want news up to the minute, and whilst critics toe the line and wait until opening night, (the current record, set by Spider-Man the musical, is 182 preview performances) everyone else can take to the internet and publish unreservedly. They can deliver the immediacy the professional critic can’t. Shouldn’t the professionals be following suit? The Times and The Daily Mail both defied the embargo for the Barbican’s 2015 production of Hamlet, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, publishing after the first preview, but were met with scorn by critics and actors alike.

hamlet

Image Credit: Barbican

On balance, previews are the ‘safe space’ where actors and directors can try out their work on real audiences. To not allow them this has the potential to backfire horribly by discouraging risk. To return to the Barbican’s Hamlet, after being met with negative reactions the director took the decision to return “To be or not to be…” to Act three, scene 1. It had been a bold decision to open with it, but one that didn’t stick around until opening night. If he hadn’t had the previews, perhaps he never would have had the tenacity to try it.

 

However, ‘the Broadway model’ which is already being trialled over here by Sonia Friedman, invites critics to these oh-so-scared previews. Talk about mixed messages. Does more variety in the review material not promote fairer reviews by removing the pressure, and a happier production team all round? Or does having a different bench mark for each critic just make it more complicated? There have been numerous instances of understudies coming on for press night for example,

 

On this journey that started with one opening night, have I worked out what, or who, are they good for? I wouldn’t go as far as to say absolutely nothing, but they no longer serve the actor’s needs, nor the critic’s, so why are we still indulging the theatre press by attending them? Us critics helped to build this first night phenomenon, and while I’m not proposing outright anarchy in our reaction against it, we ought to push against the restraints a little, to deconstruct and redefine it.

 

The critic needs the audience, the audience need the critic. We need industry integration, more than we need seclusion and special treatment. Let’s take the critics out of their press night packaging and let them live again.

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