One of the special privileges of being a critic, and one I try not to take for granted, is that while the rest of the public scrambles for impossible-to-get tickets, we’re actually invited to be there. And last week, even as David Tennant’s late return to Hamlet put an even greater premium on those seats, we were invited to see it again last Wednesday, even though most of us had seen the production twice already - once at Stratford last August, then again at the London opening, when Tennant’s understudy Edward Bennett had to stand in for him.
But one of the special problems of being a critic, and one that I know most of my friends try not to take me for granted over, is that sometimes it is thought that we have special access for others, too.
One friend who has been away in Australia for the last few months sent me an e-mail last week: “Can you a get me a comp for August: Osage County at the National. I hear from friends it’s a fab piece of theatre and I’d love to see it. “
Yes, it is, I replied - but the entire run is sold out, too. Meanwhile, another veteran theatregoer friend also wrote last week: “I saw Hamlet last week. Fine production (but I wouldn’t expect anything less from Greg Doran) and I was very impressed by Edward Bennett - he was my 61st Hamlet!! But I really would like to make Mr Tennant my 62nd.” And he begged my help to try to make it happen.
I replied that I wasn’t about to ask for myself, let alone for anyone else - until, of course, the RSC made the offer, at which point it was naturally for single tickets only. But what was interesting was the take-up: the Telegraph’s Charles Spencer was the sole overnight daily critic to attend and file a follow-up review, while the Evening Standard fielded Nick Curtis. Simon Edge’s news review for the Daily Express didn’t make it into the paper, but appeared online here.
Elsewhere, it fell to arts correspondent (and chief arts blogger) Charlotte Higgins to file an overnight news report for The Guardian, though the necessity of meeting an early writing deadline meant that she was unable to see the entire performance, but actually snuck out around 10.20pm (the performance didn’t actually end till close to 11pm).
The Independent - whom had oddly sent the paper’s chief executive Ivan Fallon to review the production’s first night last month - saw him go back to do so again, and his review has run today. It’s one thing, of course, to save money by asking staff writers to turn themselves into theatre critics, but when the chief exec, no less, is doing so, things must either be harder than we thought at the Indie, or perhaps this is the only way he could think of getting in to see it…
Mind you, this is not completely unprecedented: Time Out, which is in the midst of a cost-shedding exercise of its own that will see the imminent departure of long-time theatre editor Jane Edwardes, recently sent its editor, Gordon Thomson, to review the first night of the RSC’s The Cordelia Dream — I only hope it made him realise that the job of theatre critic isn’t all glamour but actually quite an arduous task.
But then being a member of the public can be even more arduous. While we lucky few have our free ticket and programme waiting for us (Simon Edge was alone amongst us to bring his programme to the theatre from the first time he’d seen it!), as well as a voucher for a free interval drink last Wednesday too, the Observer’s David Smith showed us how the other 99% live: in a feature in yesterday’s paper, he wrote of turning up at the Novello at 2am last week to queue for the RSC’s day seats. He went prepared, telling us that he “put on a pyjama top. I added a shirt, jumper, fleece, then a suit jacket. Over my trousers I dragged on thermal trousers, and on top of my socks a pair of thick woolly ones. My coat, ski gloves, two scarves and a hat completed the ensemble. It was going to be a cold night in quest of a hot ticket.”
David, who has done maternity cover for The Observer’s regular arts correspondent in the past but more recently was on duty reporting from Afganistan’s Helmand province last month, is clearly used to hardship; but you have to admire his diligence in pursuing this story. Thank God he feels the effort was justified: “Could the performance possibly be worth it?”, he asks, and replies, “Astonishingly, it was, and then some.” As he concludes, “This could be the great Hamlet of my lifetime, and that’s why I queued for eight hours in the cold. In the era of DVD and iPlayer, live performance, unmediated and evanescent, is more treasurable than ever. So when Jude Law takes on Hamlet later this year, I’ll be there. But this time, with my seat already booked, I won’t emerge from the duvet until I have to.”
But if David made an extra effort, one blogger was lucky: Robert McCrum, writing in The Guardian, reported on Friday, “I bought good dress circle seats last summer, the minute the RSC box office opened, and have endured a roller coaster of anticipation ever since.” And even if, as he calculates, his £37.50 ticket was “probably worth £1,000 on the black market”, the experience proved priceless: “We came out into the nipping and eager air of the Aldwych at about 11 o’clock conscious of having seen the best and most intelligent Hamlet of recent times; if not a rival to Olivier (who, now, can recall that performance anyway?) then quite the equal of Jonathan Pryce’s memorable version at the Royal Court in 1980. David Tennant is a superb actor and he was supported by one of the best RSC ensembles in living memory. I think I was lucky to see theatrical history in the making.”