Noises Off

This week, theatre critic and blogger, Lyn Gardner has written two short pieces that got me thinking. The first, Should there be more heckling in the theatre?, essentially deals with interruptions, be they by mobile telephones, snoring, or people expressing their disquiet at the play they are watching, while noting that the revered silence audiences in the ‘west’ are expected to adopt has not always been the case.

The second, Fail safe: how good can come of bad theatre, discusses the notion that when actors and directors are actually involved in a show, it’s rare for them to acknowledge that it might be anything less than brilliant.

Both of these are connected for me and basically deal with how audiences are expected to behave. If you live in Asia, as I do, you start to develop a different (and I have to say, more refreshing attitude) to what it means to be an audience member. If I go to a professional venue in Hong Kong to watch Beijing Opera, I expect the audience to talk through the production, perhaps walk in and out or even eat their lunch – its just what happens. Similarly, if I go to see Cantonese Opera at one of the temporary stages that spring up around town (and country) at various times of year, it is much more of a community event, with villagers popping in and out as they fancy. In neither of these contexts do the actors or fellow audience members feel annoyed or slighted by such actions.

In the West however, very different responses ensue and I would like to share two examples with you. A number of years ago my school ran overseas theatre trips to London and on two separate occasions I remember being party to an incident. On the first occasion, having arrived in the UK only hours early, we went to see a wonderful, lyrical and powerful play called The Island by Athol Fugard, John Kani, and Winston Ntshona.

The play is an apartheid-era drama, inspired by a true story, is set in South Africa’s notorious Robben Island prison. It focuses on two cellmates, one whose release draws near and one under a life sentence, who spend their days at mind-numbing physical labor and at night rehearse for a performance of Sophocles’ Antigone. There were 25 in our party and we had front row seats. It was superbly performed and directed, yet, all but one of us (a student) fell to sleep – jet lag – and were woken by very loud applause at the end. I felt acutely embarrassed for the actors who had to witness their front row snoring away while they acted their hearts out. However, it isn’t this that sticks in my memory. It is being shouted at by a rather elderly member of the audience and being told how rude we were and that we shouldn’t be taking children to the theatre if all they were going to do was sleep through the play. I tried to point out that in fact we had made a huge effort to see the production, having flown 8000 miles to do so, but the irony was lost on the shouting individual.

The second occasion, a year later, back in London with another group of students, we went to see Jumpers by Tom Stoppard.

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Now, Jumpers explores and satirizes the field of academic philosophy, likening it to a less-than skilful competitive gymnastics display. It raises questions such as What do we know? and Where do values come from? As you might imagine, it is a very challenging play to watch even if you are a philosophy major. So my students who were philosophy students were whispering quietly to their friends in an attempt to help them understand what they were watching. Again, but this time at the interval, some embittered old harridan started to shout at my students, telling them how disrespectful they were being and when I went to defend them, she started to shout at me too. This time my reply was anything but polite and I told my students to carry on as before.

Now all of these are small tales, but they do highlight the relationship, the pact, that exists between the audience and the stage in the ‘west’. I often have conversations with my students about whether it is acceptable to leave a performance before it finishes. We usually disagree. Generally my students think it is rude and disrespectful to the actors whereas I tend to believe that given I have paid to see the performance, I have the right to leave if it doesn’t reach my expectations. Admittedly this is something I have developed as I have got older, but with reference to Gardner’s second article above, if the actors/director refuse to admit that what they have produced is less than satisfactory, its up to me to be my own judge of what constitutes quality theatre.

There is another side to this which is highlighted in the article Showstopping: why Broadway audiences applaud too often by Mark Lawson which deals with the American phenomenon of the “entry round” – the enthusiastic and often over lengthy applause at the moment when theatre-goers recognise a famous actor. Interestingly Lawson comments that

Such reactions remain very rare in the UK. Indeed, in London productions featuring Judi Dench or Ian McKellen, it’s possible to calculate precisely how many American tourists are in the house by counting the number who put their hands together for the celebrity entrance, and are then silenced by disapproving shushing from Brits.

He also outlines another source of disruption that he witnessed in a production of Glengarry Glen Ross.

A group of people sitting near me had clearly come only to see (Al) Pacino, and then become grumpy at his absence from the second and third scenes of the first act. Their response to this was to chat loudly and use their mobile phones silently but flashingly until he came back on.

I could go on. But I suppose basically I’m just blogging about something that has always intrigued and fascinated me. Brecht’s notion of the ‘spectactor’, the breaking of the fourth wall, the actor/audience relationship and the role that it plays in the creation of dynamic, meaningful theatre.

One thought on “Noises Off

  1. Except I was the one student who didn’t fall asleep during The Island and it was the play that changed my life and made me realize I wanted to become a director. Years later I met Peter Brook at the Young Vic and got to tell him myself. So thank god you took us! xs

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