Per­form­ing Arts

Eat­ing, drink­ing, talk­ing: not dur­ing a play, pleads Michael Billing­ton

Country Life Every Week - - Contents -

Michael Billing­ton would like us all to sit down and pay at­ten­tion

I’ve been think­ing a lot lately about au­di­ences: if they’re get­ting worse or bet­ter and what it is that dic­tates their some­times strange be­hav­iour. What brought my ideas into fo­cus was a re­mark by Imelda Staunton, cur­rently star­ring in ed­ward Al­bee’s Who’s Afraid

Of Vir­ginia Woolf? at the Harold Pin­ter Theatre. At­tack­ing the grow­ing prac­tice of con­sum­ing food in the stalls, Miss Staunton said: ‘I don’t see why peo­ple can’t just en­gage in one thing.’ Her timely re­mark prompted an avalanche of com­ment: much of it, I no­ticed, in sup­port of her plea for sin­gle-minded con­cen­tra­tion on the part of play­go­ers.

Iron­i­cally, the play in which she is ap­pear­ing de­mands a vast amount of drink­ing by the char- ac­ters on stage. Ob­vi­ously, it’s sim­u­lated, but it made me think I wouldn’t want to sit be­hind Al­bee’s Ge­orge and Martha if they went to the theatre. I imag­ine they’d be frac­tious, noisy and would prob­a­bly stamp out at the in­ter­val.

Be­fore go­ing fur­ther, I should point out they’re bril­liantly played by Miss Staunton and Con­leth Hill in James Mac­don­ald’s pro­duc­tion. You see a hus­band and wife tear­ing each other and their two young guests apart, but even­tu­ally com­ing to terms with re­al­ity. The play is both sear­ingly funny and emo­tion­ally cathar­tic and em­i­nently worth see­ing.

Miss Staunton’s point was that Al­bee’s play both de­mands, and re­pays, close at­ten­tion, yet, al­though the Satur­day night au­di­ence with whom I saw it was quiet and at­ten­tive, there were ir­ri­tat­ing pock­ets of rest­less­ness. A young man in front of me seemed un­able to get by with­out con­stant re­course to a plas­tic wa­ter bot­tle, which he nois­ily un­screwed. Hav­ing bought an ice cream in the in­ter­val, he then scraped the side of the car­ton with his spoon through­out the sec­ond half. A chap next to me, who may well have been dragged to the theatre by his date, also au­di­bly gulped glasses of red wine through­out the play’s three hours.

These were only mi­nor nui­sances com­pared to some of the things I’ve seen re­cently, in­clud­ing the con­sump­tion of large trays of food while a show was in progress. I’ve never seen this hap­pen at the Na­tional Theatre, the Royal Court or any of our

great re­gional the­atres such as Manch­ester’s Royal ex­change or the Sh­effield Cru­cible, but it oc­curs a good deal in Lon­don’s West end and the theatre own­ers them­selves are partly to blame.

A note in the pro­gramme for

Who’s Afraid of Vir­ginia Woolf?

says ‘We re­spect­fully ask that food is not con­sumed dur­ing the per­for­mance’, yet, with breath­tak­ing hypocrisy, the Am­bas­sador Theatre Group (ATG), which owns the build­ing, places a brochure in front of each seat of­fer­ing the de­liv­ery of sweets, crisps, ice creams and bagels.

And this is not just a one-off. I no­ticed the same ser­vice at Rich­mond Theatre, also owned by ATG, where I re­cently saw a lovely tour­ing pro­duc­tion of La

Strada di­rected by Sally Cook­son.

What’s go­ing on? It’s partly that be­hav­iour pat­terns are chang­ing. I re­mem­ber Pere­grine Worsthorne once point­ing out that peo­ple now do in pub­lic the things they used to do in pri­vate: his ex­am­ples in­cluded hold­ing in­ti­mate phone con­ver­sa­tions and show­ing ex­treme af­fec­tion for a loved one. How­ever, I also think some­thing else is hap­pen­ing.

In the theatre, there is cer­tainly a selfish be­lief that one has the right to eat, drink, text or phone even if it an­noys other peo­ple. Even more strik­ing is the way the very same peo­ple who en­joy dis­tract­ing oth­ers are often the first on their feet for the now rit­ual stand­ing ova­tion at the end of the show.

I am all for heart­felt ap­plause. There also times when a stand­ing ova­tion seems to­tally sin­cere. It hap­pened when I saw The Girls at the Phoenix Theatre, be­cause the au­di­ence gen­uinely wanted to cel­e­brate the guts and spirit of the WI ladies who fa­mously dis­robed to raise money for char­ity. I wit­nessed an­other such ova­tion at the first night of Richard Bean’s

The Hyp­ocrite, at Hull Truck, but this was for a very spe­cial rea­son: I felt the au­di­ence was thrilled to see a piece of lo­cal Civil War his­tory turned into a piece of ri­otous com­edy as part of Hull’s year as UK City of Cul­ture.

How­ever, I’ve been to many West End first nights where some rou­tine play or mid­dling mu­si­cal has the spec­ta­tors leap­ing to their feet as if some­one has sud­denly set fire to their seats. My the­ory is that, as in Amer­ica, the high cost of a ticket forces peo­ple to jus­tify their cap­i­tal out­lay by pre­tend­ing that what­ever they’ve seen is an earth-shat­ter­ing event.

I don’t want to sound like a crusty old codger. Much of the time, I sit with raptly at­ten­tive au­di­ences. I’d also hate to sug­gest there was some pre-dig­i­tal golden age in which ev­ery­one was im­pec­ca­bly be­haved. I’m old enough to re­mem­ber the days when mati­nees were un­der­scored by the rat­tle of tea cups as trays were de­liv­ered to seats in the stalls.

There is also a long his­tory of au­di­bly in­sult­ing re­marks from im­po­lite spec­ta­tors. Peter Bull, who played Pozzo in the orig­i­nal 1955 pro­duc­tion of Wait­ing For

Godot, often quoted the lady in the midst of a well-dressed party in the Cri­te­rion stalls who sud­denly cried ‘I do wish the fat one would go’. There is a strange echo of that in an ar­ti­cle Tom Stop­pard has writ­ten for the ex­cel­lent re­vival of Rosen­crantz and Guilden­stern Are Dead at the Old Vic. Re­mem­ber­ing the play’s first night in 1967, Sir Tom said he rushed out to the pub next door when he heard the man in front of him say, dur­ing the open­ing duo­logue, ‘I do wish they’d get on’.

Peo­ple in the­atres, down the cen­turies, have been known to throw things, to riot, to en­gage in fist-fights and even, on one in­fa­mous oc­ca­sion, to shoot an Amer­i­can Pres­i­dent.

By the stan­dards of the past, you could say to­day’s au­di­ences are rel­a­tively quiet and well­be­haved, yet I still re­sent—and I know I’m not alone—the selfish spec­ta­tor who, in the course of the play, can’t re­sist phon­ing the babysit­ter, check­ing the foot­ball scores, un­wrap­ping a box of choco­lates or drink­ing with the des­per­ate ur­gency of a camel in the Sa­hara.

Imelda Staunton would like to di­rect her char­ac­ter’s anger at au­di­ences who can’t sit still through Who’s Afraid of Vir­ginia Woolf?

Rosen­crantz and Guilden­stern are Dead: ‘I do wish they’d get on’

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.