Breaking Tradition, London's Guardian Newspaper Sends Reporters and Commentators to Stuff Happens Preview

News   Breaking Tradition, London's Guardian Newspaper Sends Reporters and Commentators to Stuff Happens Preview
Theatre watchers always expected David Hare's play on the Iraq war, Stuff Happens, to be controversial, but not quite in the way it has turned out — and certainly not before it has even opened.

Arguably violating the convention that previews are "non events," to be viewed as rehearsals with audience, the Guardian newspaper — approaching the topical play's content as newsworthy — sent not only a reporter, but a small army of commentators to see the play's first preview on Sept. 1.

The next day, the reporter described the show in words which some might say bordered on a review: "With some of the cast…going some way to mimicking their originals, the full house in the Olivier Theatre experienced a curious sensation: watching what were, effectively, restaged clips of familiar TV lines uttered by our Machiavellian leaders, but…laughing at them, and hearing the whole theatre laughing at the same time."

The piece was given front page treatment in the newspaper, and on Sept. 3 the Guardian produced a further article. The paper had, it reported, "assembled an expert panel, including politicians, leading commentators and a man who actually fought there, to give their verdicts live from the first night." By the "first night" the newspaper meant the first preview, which as far as the theatre profession is concerned, is closed to the press.

The "verdicts" included Labour MP Robin Cook writing in detail about the characterizations and including such specific judgments as, "The play's epilogue…is perfectly judged." Other reviews followed by writers including Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee, former weapons inspector Scott Ritter, former BBC chairman Gavyn Davies, journalist (and ex-Evening Standard editor) Max Hastings and soldier Tim Collins.

A spokesperson for the newspaper told Playbill On-Line that there was no intention of the articles being considered reviews, saying, "We considered the first night of the play to be a big news event. And wanted to cover it as such. James Meek, who reported for us from Iraq, didn't review it as a theatre critic would, but sketched the first night as a news event. In our coverage we deliberately tried not to pass an artistic judgment on the play. It will be reviewed by our theatre critic Michael Billington next Friday." However, opponents of the Guardian's initiative consider the use of that word "verdicts" and the very definite judgments passed on the play by the newspaper's invitees to be fairly unequivocal.

The Independent newspaper, piqued, reportedly also sent its own reporter to a preview performance. And controversy is brewing. Off-the-record grumblings by critics are very likely to manifest themselves in an official complaint by the British Critics' Circle – a debate on the subject at the next meeting is planned.

An aggrieved spokesperson for the National Theatre told Playbill On-Line, "None of this was done with our knowledge, much less our blessing. We firmly believe in the principle of the press night embargo. That is the night we regard as the opening of the play."

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