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Andrzej Lukowski: Was revenge really the motive for the end of NT’s ‘plus ones’?

The National Theatre. Photo: Philip Vile The National Theatre. Photo: Philip Vile
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This week’s great theatre scandal is the National Theatre’s proposal to strip critics of their traditional invitation to bring a guest to press night at its Olivier and Lyttelton theatres.

It’s fair to say this has caused a bit of a stir. Behind-the-scenes grumbling from affronted critics has spilled over on to newspaper pages via both a snarky Daily Mail diary entry and a longer, borderline hysterical, piece in the Daily Telegraph, both of which have been widely picked up elsewhere. They suggest that NT director Rufus Norris has personally introduced this policy as a sort of elaborate revenge on all critics, because some of them gave bad reviews to a couple of shows his theatre staged last year.

The only time the media take an interest in critics is when there’s a ‘spat’

It’s worth noting that – while the Telegraph article quotes its own Dominic Cavendish and The Stage’s Mark Shenton – neither piece is actually written by a critic. As is the general way with these things, it seems the only time the media at large expresses interest in theatre critics is when they indulge in anything that could be construed as a ‘spat’ or ‘feud’.

The NT is clearly heavily to blame for the shit hitting the gossip columns, insofar as it seems naive not to have expected to annoy anybody by the withdrawal of a really, really nice longstanding perk. And the change in policy wasn’t signalled clearly, instead snuck out in the small print of the invitation to the upcoming Olivier revival of The Threepenny Opera.

By not simply addressing the issue head on, the NT has spurred the normally fairly relaxed Critics’ Circle into taking something bordering on union action.

Shenton, who heads the circle, submitted a letter to new NT head of press Vicky Kington, pointing out the Circle’s “disappointment and surprise at this breach of a long-established protocol, and in particular worries that, once this is implemented by the NT, it will spread across to other theatres. Of course, there is no automatic right to a second free ticket, and this is definitely in the category of privilege not a right. But the National also imposed it without any prior notice or consultation whatsoever, and it was only on a close reading of the latest invitation to its next production that the new policy came to light.”

As a Circle member and critic of sorts, I too was reasonably grumpy about the whole thing. As many critics have pointed out, reviewing theatre is an unsociable-hours job; many have put in a full day at the office beforehand; and bringing a guest is not without its professional upside.

As Cavendish eloquently noted: “The need to listen to others, justify opinions, thrash things out in intervals and after the show – what most audience members do, after all – is essential on occasion to maintaining perspective, and reining in tendencies to egotism or kill-joyism. The ‘plus one’ is an invaluable, inexpensive extra weapon in a critic’s armoury – aimed, honourably, at striking after the ‘truth’ of an experience – and for any theatre to deprive lead reviewers of that weapon is only to shoot itself in the foot.”

In fact, it’s not as if critics actually consider themselves automatically entitled to a guest: smaller ‘major’ theatres such as the Donmar, the Almeida, and indeed the NT’s Dorfman, do not offer a guest ticket and everyone’s okay with that.

Are London theatre critics spoilt? Maybe. It’s worth pointing out that it’s heard of for critics to say they’ll bring someone along to a sold-out show, then turn up on their own and use the seat as a glorified bag holder. I’ve talked to Broadway critics who see the idea of interval drinks as tantamount to bribery (God knows what they’d think if they knew Shakespeare’s Globe does a buffet). And I dread to imagine how all this looks if you run a theatre outside London that national critics simply can’t be bothered to visit. There are, though, reasonable arguments why the National didn’t handle this well – which Kington acknowledged, postponing the introduction of the policy until August.

Still, whatever mistakes may have been made, have things not got out of control with this ‘revenge’ idea?

The idea that Norris – well known as a thoughtful, mild-mannered chap – would seek to inflict collective punishment on the entire critical community when a) that would seem entirely out of character and b) his tenure has, as a whole, been well received, is extremely unlikely. What makes it more unlikely still is that the policy seems so clearly attributed to the aforementioned new head of press, Kington. She has said that it’s her policy. It didn’t come into effect until she started. It’s very unlikely she was hired on a platform of smiting Norris’ foes.

She told me: “We very much value the relationships we have had with critics and journalists we have been working with for many years, and we want those relationships to continue long into the future, but we must also cultivate new relationships. In each theatre, we have only a small allocation of press tickets and we must ensure that these tickets go further and wider to ensure that more people are aware of our work.

“I hope you understand why we have decided to take this new approach. At the National, we stage work that seeks to reach out to new audiences who wouldn’t usually see our work, and in order for us to reach these new audiences we need to engage with a diversified media landscape.”

Clearly, if you’ve been hired to do a theatre’s PR it’s probably not desirable for a minor scandal to engulf your boss as a direct result of your first policy decision.

But whether you agree with her idea or not, her rationale seems entirely plausible, and it’s not as though most theatre critics haven’t called for greater diversity within our field. Certainly, it would be a remarkably elaborate cover for Norris’ vengeance.

What is probably worst about all this is not that it has happened, but that it has come out into the public domain in a manner that has made London’s theatre community look a good deal more frivolous than in fact we are. Critics come across as entitled and Norris comes across as some sort of moustache-twiddling villain. Neither is true, but the whole thing has made for marvellous gossip fodder, it seems.

Above all, now would probably seem like a good time to consider the actual facts, remember we all love each other, and chill the hell out.

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