There’s an increasingly symbiotic relationship between the stage and the screen.
Every year, more and more TV and film actors decide to tread the boards, leading theatres to enjoy larger and more successful productions than they have done in years. The actors get to scratch the itch that has been bothering them (usually one about not being a ‘proper’ actor until they have starred in the West End), the theatres make an obscene amount of money, the public gets intimate access to some of the world’s biggest stars, and the theatre industry is left healthier.
But ‘the theatre’ – the nebulous concept which encapsulates the industry, the productions and the artform itself – may not be faring so well. As more celebrities populate casts and more new theatregoers flock to see their performances, the traditions of the theatre are ignored and eroded.
At the moment, Martin Freeman is playing Richard III at London’s Trafalgar Studios, and Hobbit fans who have gone to see him are simply so overawed by his very existence that they are bursting into applause when he appears onstage and when he is mid-dialogue, ruining both his concentration and that of other members of the audience with more self-restraint.
The behaviour has been described by some commentators as “disruptive and unnecessary”, but others have taken the line that it’s better to get people into theatre at any cost rather than tut at them for not knowing how to behave.
I advocate the former.
When we take children to the cinema for the first time, we do not pat them on the head for running around, bouncing on seats, crying because they dropped their popcorn, asking to play Angry Birds on your phone and shouting out – we teach them that behaviour like that isn’t appropriate and, over time, they get the picture.
Parents have been modifying their children’s in-cinema behaviour for generations, and the movie industry is in fine health. It’s not oppressive or classist to teach people that acting like 11-year-olds at a One Direction concert during a Shakespearean history is unseemly; it’s a public service.
What’s more, a lot of this behaviour isn’t even coming from children, or teenagers, but from adults who have so little self control they urgently need to tell Martin Freeman that they are pleased he is alive the moment they see him.
They are not applauding Richard III, or even Martin Freeman as Richard III; rather they are merely applauding Martin Freeman, and that can wait until later.
Dame Eileen Atkins says the practice “ultimately breaks the spell of the story”, and I agree. The rest of the audience deserves to enjoy the performance they paid for without interruption or irritation. Not cheering doesn’t kill the tension, but doing it does.
If an actor has a large enough fanbase that their presence will attract new people to the theatre, then perhaps they should make an announcement on their website, or Twitter account, or in the programme or over the auditorium speakers that they would appreciate it if the cast and audience were respected during scenes.
If someone loves an actor so much they have the burning desire to whoop and bang their hands together upon seeing that they are flesh and blood, then their adoration will extend to keeping their damn mouths shut and their limbs still for a couple of hours.
At a time where regional theatres are closing and even big-name productions are struggling, it’s vital for theatre to be inclusive, but not at the expense of its own identity.
Young or otherwise undisciplined theatregoers, laying down not-insubstantial sums of money to see A-listers onstage but who don’t know any better shouldn’t be hounded out of the building – but nor should their behaviour be excused or permitted to the detriment of practice, productions and performances.
Despite what handwringers claim, this isn’t about class or education; it’s about respect.