Mark Shenton: To review Hamlet, or not to review Hamlet – that was the question

Tom Hiddleston in Hamlet at RADA. Photo: Johan Persson Tom Hiddleston in Hamlet at RADA. Photo: Johan Persson
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Last Friday, the Guardian asked me what I thought of the fact that critics had not been invited to review Tom Hiddleston’s Hamlet. The show was beginning a highly exclusive three-week run at RADA’s Vanbrugh Theatre that night. The theatre seats just 160, so the entire run will be seen by fewer than 4,000 people. I replied: “It is difficult to shift a sense of exclusivity around this Hamlet, but reviewing it would only amplify the disappointment of those who can’t see it and put critics in an impossible position of extreme privilege. So it’s right that we were excluded.”

But I added: “It makes one wonder: if this tree falls, or rises majestically, in the forest of Hamlets around at the moment, will it have actually happened if critics weren’t there to record it?”

In fact, not only did the production happen, but critics from three publications – including the Guardian – were there to record it. At the very first public performance. How was this possible? I asked the show’s official publicist, the Corner Shop’s Ben Chamberlain, who replied: “They got tickets fair and square. By entering the ballot. Totally legit. You can believe it or not, but it’s the truth.”

Fair enough. It’s improbable, but not impossible, that critics should have all the luck and secure three out of 160 seats (or more if they had plus ones) at the first performance. However, I am also minded to suggest that they should each select next week’s National Lottery numbers, too; Michael Billington could then personally answer the Guardian editor’s daily call on every article accessed online to readers to help fund the paper’s journalism.

But – whatever the case – the event also invites larger questions, too. These papers bought their own tickets (at £95 each) – an expenditure the Guardian, in particular, can obviously ill afford – and the critics concerned all attended the very first public performance (there was a preview the night before that was open only to RADA alumni, who were able to buy tickets for it for £50). There was an almighty furore, of course, when a few critics bought tickets and went in, uninvited, to the first public performance of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet at the Barbican two years ago.

But by not inviting critics in the first place, this Hamlet changed the rules of engagement. Did it also get to have its cake and eat it? Not only did the show get critics to cough up for their tickets, but it made them feel privileged to be there at all – a sense of exclusivity that may have contributed to some great reviews.

So maybe this Hamlet will change the rules for the future, too. Put a big enough star in the lead, refuse access to critics but challenge them to want to cover it anyway, and they’ll not only come, but they will also pay for the opportunity.

Meanwhile, though, it also hastens the redundancy of critics. I’m not sure anyone is going to thank them, in the long run, for that. As an actor friend of mine wrote to me to say after the reviews started appearing: “The vast majority of us want to hear a proper critical response, more than ‘OMG, I totes fancy Loki, who’s this Shakespeare???’ And, more interestingly, it proves Branagh and Hiddleston et al care too. The age of the professional critic is not dead. To those who know the difference, it is still very important.”

No, critics were not needed commercially for this particular run – it sold out regardless – but being made to fight for tickets in this way (if they can afford it or not) also narrows the pool of professional critical judgement being expressed even further.

Theatre in small rooms such as the Finborough (50 seats), Royal Court Upstairs (90), Donmar Warehouse (251) or Almeida (325) are already seen by necessarily limited audiences, yet critics play an important role in making sure their work is part of the national theatre conversation. The original critical response to Sarah Kane’s Blasted in the Theatre Upstairs is part of what made the play a cause celebre; it was seen by a very limited audience , but the furore – and subsequent recantation by some critics of their original opinions – has helped make the play a contemporary classic.

When the Royal Court offered the world premiere of Jez Butterworth’s The River in its upstairs theatre with Dominic West starring in 2015, it knew demand would far outstrip supply; but critics were still invited. I hope the Hiddleston Hamlet is just an aberration and that critics will continue to play their part in keeping the theatrical conversation alive.