If Benedict Cumberbatch’s play is previewing, why aren’t prices reduced?

It’s strange that theatre needs previews but opera and ballet don’t

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Theatre has many strange —  and irritating — traditions: the high prices, the booking fees, the uninformative programmes, the warm white wine in the interval. But perhaps the strangest of all is the “preview.”

Hamlet starring Benedict Cumberbatch at the Barbican in London is currently previewing. In other words, it hasn’t yet officially opened, and critics have not been allowed in. Forget the unofficial reviews you may have read, forget the thousands of column inches of news reports, forget the pictures. It’s still, yes STILL, previewing. Previewing for nearly three weeks. Some shows open and close in that period.

Well, the theatre world will always defend the tradition of previews (though even some in the theatre world have expressed surprise at the number needed for this production). Previews, they say, refine the production and its performances, not least because they enable the cast to perform in front of a live audience, and with the clues that can help give them for timing and audience reaction, they can perfect their performances before the critics are officially allowed in. Besides, because the performance is not fully ready, ticket prices are often reduced.

Only, in this case they’re not. Mr Cumberbatch and his fellow cast members may or may not be fully on top of their game, the technical glitches may not have yet been ironed out, but audiences will still have to pay the same prices as when the show has officially opened.

There can be no excuse for not reducing prices for a preview, even in a production such as this which offers some cheap tickets at all performances. But something else puzzles me about this weird tradition. Why is it a must for theatre, but pretty much unheard of in opera and ballet? Why do the singers in a stage musical need previews, but the singers in an opera can go straight in to the first night after one dress rehearsal? Opera and ballet are live performance too.

Last week I went to Glyndebourne to watch the opera star Danielle de Niese perform in a Ravel double bill. In one of the pieces she played a sexy seductress, and this just a few weeks after giving birth to her first child in real life. If anyone deserved a few previews, she did. But, as previews simply do not happen at the major opera houses, she didn’t get any and still managed to serve up a memorable performance. 

Perhaps a theatre worthy would like to go on the record and explain why plays and musicals are so much more difficult than opera or ballet that they need weeks of previews, as opposed to none in those other art forms. Or perhaps we should just scrap this rather odd tradition, a tradition that can be slightly exploitative of the audience, and accept that in the English language a first performance is a first performance — fully ready, fully rehearsed and open to all.


Alas, poor Cumberbitches, you are stuck with the name

On the subject of Benedict Cumberbatch, a reader called Marie has emailed me to agree with my piece last week saying that the man himself should sign autographs for his fans. But she takes me to task for referring to the fans as ‘Cumberbitches.’ She informs me that she and her fellow former Cumberbitches have grown tired of this epithet, no longer use it, and wish that we in the media would stop using it too. Alas, poor Cumberbitches. The trouble is, Marie, it is evocative, it does get a whole message across in one word, it is mildly amusing, and most important of all, it fits snugly into a headline. I fear, Cumberbitches, that you will have to live with it.


More Proms performers should follow Nicola Benedetti’s lead

One of my very few problems with the Proms is that I like to know the title (and indeed the composer) of the piece of music being played as an encore, but the audience is rarely informed of either. So, thank-you to the violin virtuoso Nicola Benedetti, who following her brilliant performance as soloist in the Korngold violin concerto last Monday, came to the front of the Royal Albert Hall stage and announced what the encore would be. She also made a heart-warming, little speech. Performers for the rest of the season, please take note. Engage with the audience. And don’t assume too much knowledge.