Andrzej Lukowski: Theatre ballots are a dick move that shut out dedicated fans

Tom Hiddleston in Hamlet at the Vanbrugh Theatre, London. Photo: Johan Persson Tom Hiddleston in Hamlet at the Vanbrugh Theatre, London. Photo: Johan Persson
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I still remember the great excitement in my household when the National Lottery launched back in 1994. A legitimate, government-sanctioned way to become a millionaire: surely if we just stuck at it then statistically at some point we would become incredibly wealthy? Er, nope: a couple of years back I won £45, which was nice, but so far I have been unable to purchase my dream home.

So why am I bringing this up? Well, it seems lotteries – with all the hope and despair that go with them – are theatre’s new obsession.

Now, my grasp of mathematics isn’t so shaky that I can’t tell the difference between the National Lottery and a theatre ballot in which a fixed number of entrants will definitely win. But both offer up the tantalising prospect that a win is just a couple of clicks away. You could be a millionaire! You could see the new Punchdrunk show! You could see Tom Hiddleston in Hamlet!

Ballots have been kicking around for a while in the West End and on Broadway as a means to distribute day-seats, notably via the TodayTix app. But 2017 – specifically September 2017 – seems to be a watershed, with electronic ballots emerging as the sole distribution method for ultra-exclusive theatre experiences, most notably Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet starring Hiddleston (three weeks in a 160-seat theatre) and Punchdrunk’s 864-capacity-across-its-entire-run Kabeiroi. This month, the National Theatre also announced its ballot-accessible-only onstage restaurant, Foodwork.

In a supplementary, last-minute capacity they’re fine, but as the sole means of distribution, they pretty much stink. They offer the promise that anybody might be able to see a show and that getting tickets will be a level playing field.

But I can’t help but worry that they’ve emboldened popular artists to craft oversubscribed experiences. It is a distribution method that allows elitist work to take shelter under a fig-leaf of egalitarianism. Because everybody has the slimmest chance of seeing it, it makes it okay to create work that almost nobody will see.

It’s possibly worth saying that I tried and failed to get tickets to both of those shows, as neither were offering press comps. Perhaps I’m bitter, but I hope not – I’ve always been more relaxed than some of my colleagues about thinking it’s okay if a show doesn’t want us down.

Yet I know literally dozens of people who entered the Punchdrunk ballot and failed, and not one winner, which suggests odds as stacked against the entrant as they would be if they just plonked the 432 winning pairs of tickets out for sale by conventional means – and would a national portfolio organisation dare to do that?

I do have sympathy for Punchdrunk’s desire to do something a bit smaller. But they’ve made low-key stuff before and rolled it out discretely, in a way calculated to reach devotees first: the mysterious east London shop that trailed The Drowned Man; the unannounced Tunnel 228 collaboration with the Old Vic. Announcing Kabeiroi in a blaze of hype and then hardly letting anybody see it is teetering on being a dick move.

And this is the thing: forget the hacks – surely the biggest losers are the dedicated fans. Sold-out London theatre shows are hardly a new thing. But in general it’s always been possible for somebody who really wants to see a show to get in simply by standing outside the building for long enough to secure a day-seat or return. That avenue was shut for both shows.

Punchdrunk’s hardcore fan base are no more likely to see Kabeiroi than anybody else, with the disproportionate publicity given to a tiny number of tickets making it even less likely that a given entrant will win. Democracy is lovely and that, but if you’re going to reduce ticket allocation to almost nothing, why not reserve at least a portion for those who want it the most? Has anything really been gained by randomising the audience?

It may prove a massive coincidence that Hamlet and Kabeiroi happened in the same month and there may be no more more shows with 100% ballot distribution for years now. Both shows may announce future lives. But the fact of the matter is that now electronic ballots are easily technologically possible, they aren’t going away. I just hope they don’t become an excuse to build up theatre’s ivory tower under the slimmest pretence of accessibility.