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Theatre audience members who talk, eat, canoodle or scroll are rude, entitled and selfish. Why do they bother?

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They’re at it again. Actors moaning about rotten audiences. In an interview this week, Line of Duty star Adrian Dunbar – who later this year will be making his musical theatre debut as Fred Graham in a new production of Kiss Me, Kate at the Barbican – grumbled about the behaviour of theatregoers, calling it “very distracting” to be met in an audience with “one or two people whose faces are lit up” by their phones.

This was the same week the Cush Jumbo, on stage right now at the tiny Donmar Warehouse as Lady Macbeth opposite David Tennant as the bloody thane, revealed that in their show, which requires the audience to wear headphones throughout, those watching had a tendency to rustle their sweet wrappers and fart with impunity on the assumption that nobody can hear. The actors can. Be warned.

“It is a strange modern phenomenon,” Dunbar said. “Sometimes it’s people who haven’t been to the theatre before who just don’t get it. They don’t know about the fourth wall. They might think they’re watching TV and that they can step away from what’s happening. Whereas actually the theatre is very much an engaged and a collective experience.”

Apart from the final sentence, I don’t agree with this assessment. I don’t think people who haven’t been to the theatre before go in unaware that there are real people pretending in front of them. I don’t think first time theatregoers are to blame, especially in straight plays. If their behaviour is any different it tends to be even more polite, born out of a little uncertainty.

But I do think he’s underestimating the bad behavers, the rustlers, the farters, the chatters, the scrollers. They’re not idiots, they know how it works. They’re just entitled, selfish and rude.

Let me be crystal clear about this. I have no wish to police the reactions of an audience to the work being played out in front of them. One of the most joyful theatre experiences of my life was at a mixed bill at the Watford Palace, at which a whole year group of teenagers was in attendance. Their unfiltered responses to the narratives unfolding on the stage, from vocal outrage to jumpscare shock, enhanced my own evening no end.

Cush Jumbo, right with David Tennant in Macbeth, says that audiences with headphones don't realise the actors can hear them farting (Marc Brenner)
Cush Jumbo, right with David Tennant in Macbeth, says that audiences with headphones don't realise the actors can hear them farting (Marc Brenner)

Yes, sometimes it can break the tension, and it can slip into self-indulgence. Look at me! I'm SO INVOLVED. But most of the time, that an audience feels safe and free to react in an authentic way to something dramatic is at least one mark of a successful evening at the theatre.

Contrast this with my visit to the Enfield Haunting last week. We’ll draw a veil over the play itself, which was bad. But what made it infinitely worse was the couple in the row behind me who offered a running commentary to the action, delivered in stage whispers, and the pair a few seats down who sounded like they were eating a three course meal out of a cellophane bag throughout.

Every moment of quiet, meant to ratchet up the tension in this pseudo-supernatural mystery play, was punctuated by the sharp crackle of a massive crisp packet (someone else actually shushed them, but it made no difference). The show was 70 minutes. You can wait for your goddamn dinner.

It’s a small thing but amplified by dramatic silences it made me feel homicidal. Imagine then what it’s like for theatre managers, who have to put up with worse, night after night. A conversation my colleague had with a West End theatre manager, corroborated elsewhere, made our hair stand on end – people bawling out front of house staff for the slightest reason, people pissing in stairwells, people having actual sex in the toilets, apparently a not infrequent occurrence (considering it’s actually quite difficult to sit down in most tiny, crammed in West End theatre toilets, this almost impressed me. Having a wee in the Wyndham’s ground floor loo is like trying to pee in a Cubist painting; the bendy athleticism required to have sex must be Olympic-standard).

What’s wrong with people? Perhaps it’s about the cost. Theatre tickets are, in the main, pricey as hell. Perhaps there’s a feeling that, having spent upwards of, say, 180 quid on a pair of tickets for something, not to mention the station parking, the train, dinner, the babysitter and so on, they’re entitled to a five star, anything goes experience from the moment of arrival to the second they lay down their head back on the pillow.

I’ve got some sympathy with the urge to get your money's worth, but nobody attends the theatre in isolation, that’s the point. As Dunbar says, it’s a collective experience. We all contribute to it, for better and for worse, and a moment’s consideration should tell anyone with a modicum of common sense to shut up, turn off their phone, put away the crunchy stuff, and just listen, out of respect for the actors and the work on stage, and for the people who have also paid their hard-earned cash to watch it. And for yourself – why pay that much just to sit in a darkened room guzzling overpriced snacks and bad wine, looking at your phone? Are you mad?

For a brief couple of hours, your boss cannot reach you. You have the perfect excuse not to go for a run, or pick up anyone’s socks, or do the washing. You are free to immerse yourself in another world alongside a group of like-minded strangers. In today’s ultra-connected, ultra-disconnected society, why would you not grasp that opportunity with both hands?

What the Culture Editor did this week

Cowbois, Royal Court

Charlie Josephine’s rollicking queer Western is funny and charming and carries a simple but powerful message of love for everyone, whoever they are and however that looks, but after the interval it’s a bit of a shambles. A cut of 30 minutes and some tighter direction would vastly improve it.

American Fiction

Jeffrey Wright is superbly weak and selfish in this clever, knowing directing debut feature film by former journalist Cord Jefferson, based on Percival Everett’s novel Erasure, about a black writer who finds himself pandering horribly to his white publisher’s thirst for stereotypical black stories. A cringefest, but a good one, out on February 2.