First of all, I would like to point out that I make no apology for this article (or rant). If you read and disagree or feel I have gone somewhat overboard, then that is perfectly valid and we’ll just have to agree to differ. Please remember that I am writing this after a two day trip to London where, among other business, I indulged in a few trips to the theatre and am still a little peeved at the rudeness and disrespect I encountered at nearly every single performance I attended. Some of you may disregard my comments as too serious, but writing as an actor and director with a relative amount of experience as well as a regular theatregoer, I must vent strong feelings about audience behaviour and etiquette.
I will start with the more trivial aspects of this argument. Now, first on the list: Chat. People whispering through a performance is bad enough, but talking at normal level is completely unacceptable, in my view…and yet, it happens all too often. Please note that I nearly always make exceptions – pantomimes are a different kettle of fish entirely, for example, and some comedies, immersive theatre productions, and promenade performances also allow for interaction and relax the rules in some cases. Barriers go down, the audience are more of an integral part of the evening, and as a result, the expectations can be significantly different. However, I have experienced many a time when people have shown a complete lack of respect for both actors and audience and unfortunately, the problem appears to be worsening. Whilst watching Mike Leigh’s ‘Grief’ at Bath recently, an elderly gentleman declared rather loudly ‘I could do his job!’ at a tender (and silent) moment when Sam Kelly’s taciturn Edwin follows his nightly routine and fetches two sherries for him and his sister and their quiet toast together. Most of the audience around me sniggered – and to be honest, I don’t blame them, it was a laugh of disbelief, one felt. I’m afraid I wasn’t laughing. I cannot count the number of times the more elderly members of the audience have chatted, whispered, rustled loudly in their bags (“I can’t find the Maltesers! Where did you put them?” – I heard at a crucial moment in ‘Hamlet’ in Plymouth) and even snored loudly in the first few rows of the stalls. The most uncomfortable thing is the look on the actor’s face, the occasional trip over a line, the stiffening of the body – they may be small reactions, almost unnoticeable, but to those of us who have stood on that stage and felt exactly the same, your heart really goes out to them. Now, I love that theatre is inclusive – from toddlers to OAPs, everyone is welcomed in and there are such a range of productions out there that it is pretty unlikely you can’t find something to suit your tastes. Saying this, if certain people do not know how to behave, maybe they shouldn’t go. I’ve already mentioned the senior members of the audience, who make up a large number of most audiences and therefore, are vitally important to the theatre, but who occasionally seem to have no clue as to what not to do when in the auditorium – it’s as though they are sat watching the television at home and do not realise their loud comments and mini conversations can be heard by all and sundry. Teenagers can also cause a problem. I am reminded of Ken Stott who actually ordered a large group of schoolchildren to leave the theatre during a performance of ‘A View From The Bridge’ a few years back claiming they were rowdy and disruptive, after which followed a long stand-off between Stott and the teacher whilst the audience cheered in favour of removing the guilty party and the bewildered ushers tried to deal with the mayhem as best they could.
Now, I don’t want to rant about our young people as I still count myself as part of that group, and indeed, I was subject to many judgmental looks whenever I turned up a theatre during my teenage years – I think they thought I should be on an X-Box or drinking cider in a bus shelter somewhere. I will, however, just say this: when performing in Salisbury in 2010, we were interrupted constantly by a group of what I assumed were A-Level students – they chatted, texted, sighed and tutted, sniggered, whispered, poked each other, and snorted with laughter. They had to be remonstrated by an elderly lady at one point. For our cast (and possibly some members of our audience), that was unforgivable. Myself, I hated that performance with a passion, I just could not enjoy it any longer – your confidence, patience, and nerves are tested, all because of the sheer selfishness of those people who should know better.
Some weeks later, our theatre company received rather unpleasant messages on event walls and comment boxes below our listings and reviews. I will not quote them here, but some were abusive and rather cruel – they were clearly the work of those teenagers. Call me harsh if you will but I feel they should not be allowed back into a theatre until they can show some manners and decency.
I admit I feel much better now I am unburdening myself. Unfortunately, we have arrived at the chief focus of this article and I can feel my blood pressure rising considerably…I’m talking about the scourge of the stage actor: The Mobile Phone. I shudder just saying it. The fact of the matter is that most of us own a mobile phone nowadays and I think we’d agree that they are a brilliant invention – it is almost impossible to imagine life without them. Fine. I do not dispute that. What is to my mind the height of rudeness is not turning them off in a theatre or the cardinal sin: using them! At four separate performances last week, I heard a range of bleeps, ditties, alarms, and ringtones at various points throughout the show, despite various warnings over the tannoy system before curtain up and written most clearly in the theatre foyers and programmes.
The most effective announcement came from the unmistakeable voice of Danny DeVito which echoed around the Savoy Theatre just before the start of the evening performance of ‘The Sunshine Boys’. “I cannot be held responsible for the actions of Richard Griffiths…” he said, in a half-jokey, half-serious tone, referring to his co-star of the Neil Simon comedy, who is now notorious for halting proceedings to shame and evict members of the audience who severely disrupt the performance with the ringing of their mobile phone. I checked mine six times. After all, Griffiths is fearless about breaking the fourth wall and admonishing those who have a blatant disregard for the rules. Indeed, this has happened on no less than three occasions in recent times and obviously audiences themselves wholehartedly agree, as they have shown through cheering when Griffiths (and subsequently, other actors) have reacted in this manner while the humiliated soul flees the scene, their Blackberry still beeping away incessantly.
On the other hand, many consider this to be the wrong course of action, arguing that the most professional of actors would simply ignore the intrusion and carry on with their job as expected of them. But, I ask, what about if the protestations came from the character instead? A clearly furious Kevin Spacey recently stopped in the middle of ‘Richard III’ in Sydney and turned on an audience member whose mobile was ringing, yelling ‘Tell them we’re busy!’ in character before continuing to thunderous applause. On Broadway in 2009, the very same thing happened at a preview of the new play ‘A Steady Rain’ where it was the turn of Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig to lambast a shamefaced mobile owner – “You want to get it? Grab it – I don’t care”, Jackman said, calmly, and not dropping his guise of a Chicago policeman, adding ‘…Unless you’ve got a better story” before Craig waded in with a tinge of menace in his voice. – watch the incident on YouTube, if you dare, it is painfully embarrassing and yet somehow wonderfully inspired.
The actor Michael Simkins tells of the superb David Suchet who apparently, after a mobile phone rang for the third time in the stalls during a tense scene in Rattigan’s ‘Man and Boy’, just stopped mid-sentence and (in Simkins’ own words) “…stared into the middle distance with a look of infinite regret and disdain etched on his face. The phone continued to ring. Suchet’s stare became even more sorrowful, even more resigned, even more disdainful. After an agony of fumbling, it eventually stopped. A half smile, and Suchet seamlessly continued from the very syllable he’d left off at.”
Let me just say this. The world does not stop turning because you are sat in a darkened room enjoying a few hours of escapism. If you truly want to immerse yourself in the piece, the characters, the language, and the situation, then what do you need your mobile phone for? If you cannot live without seeing what Chantelle has tweeted about ‘The Only Way Is Essex’ or texting your best mate to arrange drinks for an afternoon, then you should not be at the theatre. Yes, a family member may be ill, your football team may be playing a crucial game at home, or you’re anxiously waiting from a text from your girlfriend saying her plane arrive safely. People have lives. I do understand. However, maybe you should be at home if it is that important? If you are merely bored and absolutely cannot stomach the performance any longer, leave at the interval.
Do not play with your mobile phone among people who not only have paid good money for this experience (sometimes it costs a fortune!!) but actually want to be there and enjoy themselves – I’m talking to YOU, the two ignorant souls whose bright mobile phone lights shone in my eyes as you stood right beside me and texted throughout ‘Antigone’ at the National last Wednesday. I would have said something if I’d thought it would do any good. It’s not hard to switch off a phone, is it? If you cannot find the ‘off’ button, I recommend you return it to the manufacturer or alternatively, leave it at home (shock! horror!). It is quite pathetic, really, if you are that obsessed. Personally, I agree with the majority that theatres themselves should be doing more to combat this behaviour - I have often been present at performances when a situation arises and the ushers do nothing.
In an ideal world, they should be trained to deal with any manner of problems but still, it often boils down the surrounding audience to intervene. I will say this in defence of them, though – the warnings that they make are about as subtle as a slap in the face with a huge cod and if people are stupid enough to ignore them then they get everything that comes to them, I’m afraid.
Whoa…I feel purged now. This rant is over. Thank you for reading (if you made it all the way through). Catharsis: what a wonderful thing. And I haven’t even told you about critic Mark Shenton’s run-in with Bianca Jagger and her camera. But that’s for another day…