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