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Lyn Gardner: Cirque du Soleil’s attempt to silence this critic made them look like clowns

A scene from Cirque du Soleil's Ovo
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Last week I found myself uninvited from a press night. Before Christmas, the publicist for Cirque du Soleil sent me an invitation to review the company’s latest London outing, Ovo, at the Royal Albert Hall. I accepted to review for the Guardian and all seemed set until I got a message from the arts desk saying that I had been uninvited.

Apparently, the Guardian was welcome to attend just as long as it was not me who covered the show. I think my one-star review for last year’s Amaluna might have had something to do with it. Our solution was to send another reviewer on the allocated press tickets, but also for me to purchase a ticket (£73) so I could also report back on the show, which I duly did.

Being uninvited (or in my case disinvited, which strikes me as rather ruder) was a first for me but not for the industry. This is probably the only thing I have in common with Daily Mail critic Quentin Letts. Back in 2015, he was excluded from the invitations sent out to review a revival of The Queen after a less than flattering feature about its star, Kristin Scott Thomas. (He too went anyway.)

Cirque du Soleil’s Ovo review at Royal Albert Hall, London – ‘spectacular acts’

In the late 1960s, London’s Royal Court was so unhappy about a stream of negative reviews by Spectator critic Hilary Spurling that it announced it would not invite her to any further press nights. But the theatre quickly changed its mind when other critics declared that if Spurling were not invited they would not attend either, and the Arts Council threatened a loss of subsidy.

Disney also changed its mind about a move last year to exclude film critics from the Los Angeles Times after newspapers from across America stood in solidarity with that publication and Disney discovered that its movies would be excluded from consideration for end-of-year awards unless it rescinded its decision.

There are historical precedents. The way Nazi Germany dealt with negative critical coverage of its favourite and officially approved artists was to ban arts criticism altogether. In 1936, Joseph Goebbels issued an order banning the writing of critical reviews, instead restricting arts critics to writing descriptions of arts events without any critical analysis. Which I think is what a publicist is paid to do.

Maybe attempts to sideline critics remain relatively rare because no company or publicist is going to want to be talked of in the same breath as Goebbels.

Of course, there is no comparison between Cirque’s attempt to stop me writing about its work and the Nazi propaganda machine. Nonetheless, when you have a president in the White House who is continually trying to control the message to the extent of presenting lies as facts, it’s not surprising that others think that they can have a go at doing it too.

The demise of criticism in broadsheet newspapers that increasingly now run either a preview feature or a review (but no longer both) plays to a PR agenda that prefers the puffery of the preview over the complexities of the properly critical review.

Who can blame them, particularly as the financial stakes get ever higher? I don’t, but it is insidious when PRs and theatres attempt to control who might see a work by manipulating press performances to guarantee the reviewer from a particular publication they would prefer, imply to bloggers that the price paid for a free ticket is to give a positive spin (and withdraw future tickets if they failure to deliver) and – in at least one case I know of – threaten legal action against a site if it does not remove a less than favourable review.

It is also futile, because not only does word get around about such dark practices, but the truth is that while you may think you know a critic’s taste, you can’t second-guess it. Try to choose the critic you want and you might just find yourself in for an unpleasant surprise. On the other hand, one of the pleasures of my job is finding yourself loving something that on paper doesn’t look like a good fit for your tastes. Who is to say that Ovo wasn’t going to be the one that really cracked it for me?

In the scheme of things, whether I do or don’t write a review of Cirque du Soleil hardly matters. This is a hugely successful company with a massive following. It sells out the Royal Albert Hall every year despite the frequently less than positive and sometimes scathing reviews from many different publications.

But the principle that it is publications – whether print, broadcast or online – who decide who they should send to cover a show, and not the PR, company or theatre, is important.

It is a short step from dictating who can and cannot review a particular show to dictating the content and tone of the review itself. This is when it ceases to be a review at all and becomes just another cog in the PR machine.

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