At the turn of the century, the popularisation of the mobile phone led to a new ‘unscripted entrance’ in theatre houses across the country: a monophonic tune certain to frustrate audience and actor alike – there have been several notable occasions when the owner of such a device has faced reprimand from the stage.
Over one hundred years before this, regular theatregoers were equally in uproar as the new middle classes arrived without the traditional suit and top-hat. Standards of theatre etiquette will forever be changing, and there will always be those who oppose that change – but are they wrong to?
The thorn in the side of critics and audience members alike recently has been raucousness – with the overenthusiasm of young Martin Freeman fans being in the news this week. Their crime? Clapping and cheering too readily when their Richard III spoke.
This is probably an unavoidable effect of the new West End ploy to get a famous television or film star as they try to make the difficult transition from being at the younger end of the industry to the elder, establishing that they can do the serious, ‘real’ drama too.
This move has halted the decline of London theatre. As Natalie Haynes, writing for the Independent, warns, we are lucky to have a new generation heading to the theatre, and any attempts to make them feel unwelcome threaten the future of the sector completely. And anyway, the people have paid their money to enjoy themselves.
While it is hard to deny that more people experiencing the delights of the stage is a good thing, does that really mean we can let everything go? There is something to be said for being more reserved. Twice in the past year, I have gone to fine Oxford productions and been struck by how raucous audiences have provided their own barrier to full appreciation of the play.
In much the same way as Freeman’s fans delighted at seeing him rather than the character of Richard III, Oxford audiences were most amused when their friend in the cast said something out-of-character, despite the fact that the individual in question was meant to be playing a character!
The most pivotal line of the excellently-done Frost/Nixon for example, where the former President makes his great admission, was frustratingly greeted with more than chuckles.
By being raucous, cheering, and laughing overenthusiastically, purists would say that you are stopping yourself from fully understanding the storyline, the characters, and any meaning there might be behind that. Plays can only be appreciated when they are allowed to do their own thing, unhindered.
This could be seen as a snobbish argument, but it has an important point. While the theatre is, and many would say should always be, for the audience, its purpose is to be the medium between the makers and the audience. There is no doubt that for almost every production you see in Oxford, let alone in professional theatre, many people have tried hard to put their personal touch on the finished product.
You may have paid for your ticket, but that should not absolve you of your responsibilities to fellow audience members or those on the stage and behind it. So go to the theatre and enjoy it – but don’t ruin it for others!