The press night diary is already so full already that we hardly search out shows that we are not actually invited to see. It barely entered my radar that the return of an all-male production of Twelfth Night to Shakespeare’s Globe, with Mark Rylance reprising his award-winning turn as Olivia that he first played there, when he was the theatre’s artistic director, in 2002, was not being offered for review at the Globe.
Instead, a press day has already been announced for the transfer to the West End’s Apollo on November 17, when we’ll see the already-reviewed Richard III again in the afternoon, then see this incarnation of Twelfth Night in the evening.
That prospect seemed to satisfy most of us, especially since we’d already seen Rylance play the role in the Globe ten years ago, we’d recently seen his return there in Richard III, and September has been more than busy enough as it is. On the other hand, this production of Twelfth Night also marks the first return to the theatrical stage of Stephen Fry since he famously scarpered, soon after the February 17, 1995 first night of Simon Gray’s Cell Mates in the West End, in the midst of a battle with depression, and was subsequently spotted in Bruges.
The late Gray subsequently laid the blame squarely at Fry’s door for the play’s early demise in a brilliant book about the affair called Fat Chance; though Simon Ward was hastily conscripted to replace him, the play closed just over a month later, on March 25, 1995. In the book, Gray — whose play is yet to be done again — wrote of his anticipation of Fry’s eventual rehabilitation:
Whenever Stephen surfaces, whether with a public smile on television or in the most obscure teaching school in a remote corner of Europe, he will be in the limelight again, whether he wants it or not.
As we now know, Fry has of course chosen very much to be in the limelight; in a development that Gray could never have anticipated, Fry lives his life more publicly than ever via a Twitter feed that offers up to the world bite sized notes on his life, thoughts and enthusiasms, which as of yesterday morning, had 4,824,019 followers.
Last Saturday, he tweeted both before and after his official stage return: beforehand, he tweeted, “Here comes Twelfth Night’s first night - as it were. slaps self in face and does warm up xxx” And after, he tweeted his relief: “Phew! First one over. And what an incredible audience. @The_Globe is the best theatre I’ve ever played in. Thank you, wonderful audience.”
Although Fry himself calls it a first night, it wasn’t one in the sense of being a press night. That, as I’ve said, isn’t going to happen until the West End. And although there are well-established protocols that critics traditionally observe to go to see productions on invitation only, what happens when we are not invited at all? Being invited to see it at the Apollo doesn’t quite qualify as an equivalent invitation; the Globe and Apollo are very different spaces indeed. Besides, the Globe has contradicted itself by previously inviting us to see Richard III there; if we could wait for Twelfth Night to transfer, surely we could have waited for Richard III, too?
The Daily Telegraph’s deputy theatre critic Dominic Cavendish duly bought himself a ticket for the very first performance and his review ran on Monday. Dominic quotes Fry’s own tweets on the occasion, and then says:
I witnessed this as a paying audience member - critics are not invited until after the sell-out run here has ended and the production moves to the West End. But I wanted to be there: this marks Fry’s return to the boards following the ill-fated premiere of Simon Gray’s Cell Mates in 1995.
In a review that concludes by declaring it “frankly unmissable” and awarding it five stars, I doubt the management of the Globe or Sonia Friedman who is moving it to the West End are exactly going to complain about Dominic jumping the gun. And perhaps Dom’s actions do highlight whether critics need to be as obedient as we are, when managements play us for their convenience, not ours. As Michael Coveney noted in a blog earlier this week,
In some ways, one should feel grateful to critic Dominic Cavendish for exposing the futility of managements laying down misguided laws.
Nowhere was this more apparent than in the sudden designation of an opening night earlier this year of Hay Fever as a ‘Gala Night’, even though in all other respects it was a formal opening night, complete with an earlier 7pm curtain and after-show party. But because the management said it was one of a series of press previews, they demanded — and we, like sheep, followed their request — to embargo all reviews till the following Monday.
One of the reasons behind this was that the Young Vic was transferring Chichester’s production of Bingo to open the same night; and as I reported at the time, the producer Matthew Byam Shaw told me:
We had to go with the Monday embargo to ensure the best possible coverage for the play, otherwise reviews would clash with Bingo and trickle out over several days if we also opened on the Thursday.
But as I said in my blog in reply to this:
The aim to ‘ensure the best possible coverage for the play’ is entirely understandable, but it also suggests a new rule of engagement to control when and how the reviews are distributed, which is not ultimately in the gift of a producer. The danger is that critics will end up at the beck and call of producers who wish to arbitrarily change the rules all the time, to suit their own timetabling and publicity convenience.
And that, it seems to me, is precisely what has happened with the Globe Twelfth Night. I’m told that the Telegraph arts desk made a final plea to the Globe to see sense and have a proper press night. Having failed to persuade them, they took matters into their own hands. Maybe we need to do that more.
After all, bloggers and tweeters — including Fry himself — are not similarly constrained from offering up comment and commentary. And in a changing media landscape, where news is moving faster than ever, we may need to be ahead of the game — as Dominic now undoubtedly is — instead of trailing endlessly behind it.