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Mark Shenton: Reviews of Steven Berkoff’s Harvey demonstrate a critical lack of respect

Steven Berkoff. Photo: Tristram Kenton Steven Berkoff. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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The theatre industry and the critics and journalists who cover it are co-dependent. Without the theatre, we wouldn’t have anything to write about. But the theatre also needs us: without us writing about the theatre, fewer people would know about it.

Or at least that used to be the case. Theatres and theatremakers now have many other channels available to them to communicate their messages, from Twitter and Facebook to YouTube and their own websites. So, maybe they don’t need us as much as we used to think they did.

There’s inevitably a tension between theatres receiving negative attention and the positive feedback received from critics and reporters. Of course, theatres can’t control the message themselves. But mostly we co-exist in a world of mutual respect. Journalists honour embargoes on press releases, meekly following their leads, unless, of course, we stumble upon a scoop. In that case, we may briefly get ahead of the game – but in internet time, a scoop only lasts about 10 seconds, until someone retweets it.

However, when it comes to reviews, traditional outlets are invariably more respectful. We understand that theatre is a process – and theatremakers don’t want to open their work to critical attention before they are ready to do so. So we wait patiently for the press invitation to arrive in our inbox, which may include seeing a preview, on the condition that we hold our reviews for publication until a designated date and time.

That can makes our lives a lot less stressful – there’s no mad scramble for the door at the end of the show to write and file our reviews, ready for publication the same night. But there are also times when we’re not invited at all. The Playground Theatre in west London recently offered a short showcase run of new one-man show Harvey, written and performed by Steven Berkoff, about Harvey Weinstein. Berkoff specifically did not want it reviewed, so members of the press were not invited.

Both the actor/writer and subject matter are newsworthy – and the Guardian duly bought tickets (but did not inform the theatre that it had done so) for the very first preview. The Telegraph, which had been given an exclusive interview with Berkoff about the play, was informed as a courtesy that the Guardian had done so and also bought a ticket to review it.

This isn’t the first time this has happened – and it won’t be the last. A critic for The Times slipped into the first preview of Benedict Cumberbatch’ Hamlet at the Barbican, and reviewed that.

Mark Shenton: The Times picked the wrong time to review Benedict Cumberbatch in Hamlet

She was joined by a columnist from the Daily Mail who did the same. And while it could be argued in that case – as it was persuasively at the time – that as the producers did not reduce the prices for previews and therefore it could be said that they were selling a complete production, not a work-in-progress, in the case of Harvey, Berkoff was deliberately only staging a short run that critics had been expressly told they were not welcome to cover.

The Guardian’s review stated: “The production makes clear, on the night, that this is a work-in-progress, and Berkoff has a script with him on stage (although to those buying tickets online there is nothing to indicate that the play is still being workshopped). It is when he forgets his lines and riffs his apologies that we are reminded of Berkoff’s natural ease and charisma on stage. Unfortunately, they are wasted on Harvey.”

Meanwhile, the Telegraph review describes it as “a rambling, incoherent 45-minute monologue billed (but not on the website) as a work in progress in which Berkoff offers Weinstein’s side of the story from a prison cell”.

The play is summarily dismissed, at the very earliest public showing of its development. That serves neither the play nor its 81-year-old actor/director, who has done long service in British theatre. Whether or not people still regard him as relevant, the least we can do is respect him.

Nor does it show respect of the process he was trying to embark upon. Simply trying to get ahead of the news cycle by reviewing it now seems to be a high price to pay for the integrity of these papers’ theatre coverage.

Mark Shenton is associate editor of The Stage. Read his latest column every Wednesday and Friday at thestage.co.uk/columns/shenton

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