'For I am nothing if not critical' Act II Scene I, Othello
Good or bad, theatre critics are an essential part of the theatre landscape and their status in the world of theatre is undeniably significant. It is well known that a critic can make or break a show; the National Theatre’s recent production of Common is a prime example of how even prestigious theatre groups can fall victim to their efforts of maintaining relevance. In this case the social commentary was marred by its blurring of themes and the characters’ lack of engagement with the laboured script. Any spark of interest could hardly be expected to endure, framed by such a relentlessly gloomy set.
Critics can tarnish the reputation of the production- but equally they have the ability to validate its merit. The 5 star rating system, as seen on all forms of production endorsements, has become a notorious means of marketing success and rarely do we see a production worth seeing without some form of star rating. The importance of the critic to a production is therefore indisputable. However, the way theatre companies get critics through the door has recently been a topic of some controversy. Should critics receive free tickets or should they pay for them out of their own pocket?
The Stage recently published a poll to vote whether or not it is acceptable to give free tickets to critics. The results were unanimously in favour of providing critics free tickets, with 63.7% voting yes and only 36.3% saying no. This topic of debate was struck by the remarks of the notorious author Anthony Horowitz- author of the Alex Rider spy series and several Sherlock Holmes novels. Quoted in the Times, Horowitz said: “As a board member of the Old Vic I don’t know why we give these people free tickets on the first night. Yes of course it might get four or five stars and that sort of helps us, but when they don’t and when they come in and are horrible about somebody’s work that just makes me angry.” Horowitz goes on to elaborate how “brutal [and] horrible” the theatre world can be and how damaging a bad review is.
Obviously no one enjoys receiving a bad review, but does that mean we should end critics’ privileges? The only real concern with giving critics free tickets I can think of is their potential ignorance to the value of the production. I believe that critics should know how much their tickets cost and include it in their evaluation of the performance. Are you getting your money’s worth? Does the quality of the performance match the price you’re paying? The critic should not be above considering the question of value for money. Yet this way of thinking means the argument becomes less an issue of critics paying for their own tickets, but whether they are aware or not of the price of their free ticket.
Of course there is the argument that in some cases there may be the expectation of a good review in exchange for a free ticket, however, this reduces the credibility of the individual critic themselves. Reputable critics strive for objectivity and more often than not declare a conflict of interest. The arguments for free access for critics are far more compelling- and for the most part practical. With some London tickets costing close to three figures it is simply unreasonable to expect a critic to always be able to afford these prices. If they were to pay for tickets themselves they may settle for, say, a more affordable balcony seat. This has the potential consequence of compromising their examination of the performance and, in turn, their critique.
Free tickets are great way to get critics through the door and attain those all-important star ratings. To agree with Horowitz, yes, it can feel like free tickets are wasted on critics who give scathing reviews, potentially tarnishing the reputation of the show. But that is simply a risk, for the mean time at least, most companies view as worth taking.
Simona Ivicic, English Literature student