Are audiences getting rowdier? Weirder? Less able to concentrate? Some people seem to think so. Sometimes I hear it said that young audiences chatter and text through a performance though I've never seen it. There's always been a worry about declining standards of audience behaviour, ever since Plato in The Laws denounced the shift from respectful silent attention to 'catcalls and uncouth yelling' that he called a 'theatrocracy', a damaging unbalancing of performance in favour of the ignorant audience and against the skilled performers. In the seventeenth century, Ben Jonson was writing the rules for audience behaviour into his plays - the prologue to Bartholomew Fair announces a contract for the audience imposing limits on their dissent, right to judge, the expectations it is reasonable to have and their interpretive freedom. (I wrote more about this here, lucky lucky you.) There have been periods where audiences have been noisier and periods where audiences are quieter; there have been times when riots have been deliberately provoked and others where directors have dreamed of entirely empty auditoriums. I'm not sure we're really seeing any significant change at the moment.
What does interest me is that conviction that some people have that there is a correct audience behaviour. The Platonic ideal of silent attention seems obvious to some but it confers all the power on the stage. As Jacques Rancière said in his essay 'The Emancipated Spectator' (2004), maybe audiences know more than we think? Maybe audiences are always active, rather than passive, contributing significantly in the nature and style of their co-presence to the theatre event. This is not to say that some kinds of audience behaviour aren't to be condemned; Theophrastus, in his taxonomy of contemporary moral character types, talks about the 'disgusting man' (bdeluros) who ‘claps when others stop, and he hisses at those things that the rest of the audience watch with pleasure. When the audience is silent, he stands up and burps in order to make them turn around and look at him’. That's sheer self regard and not really a response to the theatrical event as such. But audiences collectively are worth listening to.
Rather pleasingly, audiences often respond badly to being told what to do. I'm sure we've all had that aesthetic shudder of disgust at a play that thinks it can manipulate us too easily or assumes that we are more ignorant, less enlightened, more riddled with unthinking prejudice than it is. A fairly recent play which I won't name spent two hours hectoring its audience and then ended by implying we were all too passive (well if I could have gotten a word in edgeways...). As Tim Crouch puts it in The Author, these plays have written us badly.
One of my favourite instances of audiences behaving badly came in 2000, when the novelist and Conservative politician Jeffrey Archer opened his play The Accused. It’s a clunkily old-fashioned courtroom drama about a doctor accused of murdering his wife, but the real drama lay in the event of the play, because, for reasons known only to him, Archer decided to play the role of the defendant himself. At the time he was just about to go on trial for perjury related to a previous case where he had sued a newspaper for libel. Perhaps he thought that this was his chance, in some peculiar way, to rehearse for his court appearance, a pre-emptive strike on public opinion to correct any presumption of guilt they might have. The audience is addressed as the jury; the Jury Bailiff urges us to pay no attention to anything we might read or hear outside the courtroom (Archer's forthcoming trial has been widely covered in the press). Archer’s dreadful dialogue is painstakingly determined to explain what is proper evidence and what is hearsay. And the play constantly alludes to the real events of Archer’s original trial, most daringly in the climax to Act 3 Scene 1 when the defendant removes his shirt to demonstrate his supposed lover’s imperfect knowledge of his body, which recalled a similar legal crux in Archer’s own first trial.
For many people, though, Archer was simply offering a preview of him in the dock for those of us too impatient to wait for the official Old Bailey opening. The audience is required at the end of the play to vote on the guilt or innocence of the defendant. Reportedly, audiences, unwilling to be patronised by the disgraced peer, tended to vote ‘guilty’ regardless. And then, as if anticipating that the audience would not respond well to being told what to do, Archer created two endings: perversely, if the audience find him guilty, the ending reveals him to be innocent; if you find him innocent, a coda reveals his guilt. The public are always wrong. It's a peculiarly aggressive defence and a striking instance of the theatre's failure to get the audience to do what it wants written in to the very fabric of a play.
I had a think about some audiences I've been in, trying to think about the surprising, perverse, accidental and peculiar responses I've witnessed. I'm not including theatre that directly and explicitly cajoles active responses from its spectators. These are unanticipated responses, supplements.
I'm also not including cinema, though I still remember fondly a visit in 1988 to the Cube Cinema in Bristol, a tiny little community cinema seating maybe 40 people, to see I forget what. What I do remember is that they showed adverts beforehand including a long one for Moosehead beer which had high production values and featured an alien spaceship landing outside on old shack somewhere in the rural American south; lights flood through the gaps in the planking walls and the door bursts open; an alien with glowing eyes walks through, ignoring the resistance of the old timer in residence; the alien is on a mission and is inexorable, walks through the house to the fridge, pulls it open and retrieves his prey: the cold bottles of Moosehead lager. Immediately from the back of the audience, in the strongest Bristol accent you can think of, a voice declared 'I've had Moosehead. It's crap.' I can't see a bottle of Moosehead beer without thinking of that voice.
So these are 10 audiences I have known.
1. Top Girls (Royal Court Theatre) April 1991
I'd read this play, studied it at university. I'd seen extracts on TV, I think. I was very excited that it was being revived in the same theatre where it premiered almost a decade earlier and in a production by the same director, Max Stafford-Clark. If you don't know the play, its stunning first act brings Marlene, a successful businesswoman, together with five apparently successful high-achieving women from history, including the thirteenth-century Buddhist nun Lady Nijo, the ninth-century Pope Joan, the nineteenth-century explorer Isabella Bird and others. They are at a restaurant, to celebrate Marlene's recent promotion and they order and consume a full meal - and quite a lot of wine - through the course of the scene. The dialogue, which was hugely inventive and has been highly influential, has tightly choreographed overlaps and is written with a beautiful ear for ordinary talk, big and small, formal and informal. It is a staggering piece of writing and was beautifully staged. As the scene ended, I was still on a high from having seen this extraordinary theatre sequence. This was only slightly punctured by the American man behind me who turned to his companion and complained in a whisper, 'she didn't finish her avocado'.
2. Oleanna (Duke of York's Theatre) October 1993
David Mamet's play came to London with its combative US premiere behind it. It was apparently Mamet's pugnacious intervention in the Culture Wars, a blast against so-called political correctness, a playwright standing up against a feminism that had run out of control. In the play, a young female student makes a complaint of sexual harassment against her lecturer. The university is obliged to take her complaint seriously and after a series of increasingly abrasive encounters, the lecturer looks set to lose his job. At the end of the play, he snaps and physically assaults the student, shouting 'you vicious little bitch, you think you can come here with your political correctness and destroy my life?' On Broadway, apparently, audiences had responded to John's assault on Carol with cheers and shouts of 'kill the bitch'. I had liked Mamet's earlier work and so, with some misgivings, went along. I can't speak for the US production, but the London version, in Harold Pinter's directorial hands, was unrecognisable from those descriptions. It was a play about power and language in which both sides sought to establish control of meaning; it was fiercely even-handed, ironies resonating against ironies, asking deep and honest questions about our mutual existence. The initial action that led to the first accusation was masked from us: it was undecidable, impossible to say who was right. The moment where Carol hears John on the phone call his wife 'Baby' and corrects him was a moment of horror, a terrible transgression, a thrust too cruel. And when John attacks her, he had finally lost. He had made himself the brutal patriarch that Carol claimed him to be. It was, in a sense, a cathartic and tragic ending, for me, anyway. But not for the man sitting next to me. Alone in the audience, he responded to John's attack by bursting into applause. I shrank away from him, worried people might think it was me who had celebrated this assault. But why did he clap? Was this a spontaneous response to the tensions of the story that has unfolded before him? Or had he read the reports from America, experienced some 'excess' of anti-racism or feminism in his own life, and bought a ticket with the express intention to register his support? Did he want to clap because he'd seen the show? Or did he see the show because he wanted to clap? I don't know. I didn't want to ask him.
3. Oklahoma! (Liverpool Empire) December 1993
I spent Christmas with my lovely friend Alison and her family in 1993 and we went for a treat to the Empire to see Oklahoma! which has always been a favourite musical of mine. Now, I don't approve of mocking the afflicted but these were simpler more carefree times, so I will admit to finding it riotously amusing that someone in the stalls seemed to be suffering from Tourette's and kept shouting filth at the stage. The most spectacular piece of timing involved Ado Annie's first song which turned into an impromptu duet between her and the man in the audience. 'I'm just a girl who can't say No,' she sang. 'Cunt!' came the savage rejoinder. He left at the interval.
4. Look Back in Anger (National Theatre: Littleton) August 1999
Gregory Hersov's re-mount of his 1995 production at the Royal Exchange, also starring Michael Sheen as Jimmy Porter was a revelation. I am slightly embarrassed to say that when I wrote 1956 and All That, I had not managed to see a production of Look Back in Anger. I'm not that embarrassed; it was striking that perhaps the most decisive landmark in post-war British theatre had not been revived in London for over a decade. I wrote an essay in the programme for this production and was hugely looking forward to it. What's very striking on stage - rather more than on the page, I think - is the way the play draws on the old-fashioned carpentry of the well-made play, with its curtain lines, plot twists, romantic intrigues. At the end of the second act, Jimmy, the malcontent at the heart of the play, returns home to discover a note from Alison, his long-suffering wife. She has left him, after years of verbal battering and contempt. Her friend Helena, another victim of his withering articulacy, is there to crow over his loss - and she has another revelation too. Alison is pregnant. He has lost a wife and a child. The show I saw was a matinee and it had a party of American students sitting in the stalls. They were enthusiastic, attentive. But one student's response underlined for me the curious mixture of old and new in the plotting. As Jimmy reels from the impact of these two blows, he approaches Helena. We think he might actually strike her. In fact, he seizes her and the two of them kiss passionately as the lights fade. As Jimmy and Helena locked into their embrace, a young American voice shouted 'NO WAY!!!' It's a brilliant little response, precisely balanced on the edge between two responses: (a) it's entirely absorbed within the drama - and it's registering delight at a twist that you don't see coming but yet still makes sense (of course Helena falls for Jimmy; their mutual hostilities were a flirtation) and (b) it's a protest against the crude mechanics of the plot, the convenient transfer of affections just at the point of the curtain (how could Helena fall for Jimmy? It's complete fakery).
5. The Danny Crowe Show (Bush Theatre) October 2001
The old Bush Theatre was a cramped little space. You sat on steps rather than chairs; unless you were on the back row, if you leant back you leant against other people's shins. There were no clear divisions between places to sit; popular shows would mean a sweaty, uncomfortable couple of hours, pressed up against your neighbours. There appeared to be one exit; maybe there was another for us in emergencies, but if there had been a fire on the stairs, I used to wonder if we'd all burn. I don't remember a great deal about David Farr's The Danny Crowe Show. I'd liked him as a writer since seeing some kind of one-off show at the Cottesloe in the late 80s and then his brilliantly eccentric Neville Southall's Washbag at the Finborough (rewritten, retitled and slightly spoiled as Elton John's Glasses in the West End in Summer 1998 in a not-very-successful attempt to cash in on World Cup fever). I still think David Farr's plays are an interesting lost glimpse of playwriting before the In Yer Face theatre thing got going. But in 2001, a minute or two into the show, there was a slight disturbance in the audience. Someone a few people along my row slumped forward. He was making noises though it wasn't clear what they signified. After a few seconds, Mike Bradwell (I think) asked for the actors to stop; the man had suffered a heart attack. We all cleared the way and he was helped from his 'seat' and down the stairs. We waited for the ambulance to arrive, which it did after a gratifyingly swift couple of minutes. The play then restarted. This intimation of mortality has rather overshadowed my memory of the actual play. It was a real thing that really happened and, for a while, the stage seemed to be merely shadows.
6. Absolutely (Perhaps) (Wyndham's Theatre) May 2003
This was a new translation, by Martin Sherman, of Pirandello's Così è (se vi pare), more usually translated as something like Right You Are (If You Think So). It got a surprising West End outing because it had a Major Star in the cast, Dame Joan Plowright, and was directed by a Star Director, Franco Zeffirelli. The story is a typical Pirandellian riddle: Signora Frola believes that her son-in-law is not letting her see her daughter, his wife. Signor Ponza, conversely, believes that his mother-in-law is mad: her daughter was his first wife, who died, and she cannot face her loss; this woman is his second wife. Frola claims, in response, that he sent her daughter mad but has somehow married her again. The play plays with this intractable dispute, asking whether we can ever know the truth about each other. Plowright played the role of the mother-in-law, Signor Frola, and her appearance is delayed in the play for maximum effect. And on came Joan, grand, superior, furious. It was an impressive entrance, though one man in the stalls clearly didn't think we had acknowledged it sufficiently and burst into an enthusiastic round of applause, what sixty years ago they called an 'entrance round'. The Zen question about the sound of one hand clapping is one thing; in a theatre, the sound of only two hands clapping is the loneliest sound in the world. I heard somewhere that a team of Italian researchers had demonstrated that it is impossible for one person to start a standing ovation; it requires the spontaneous and collective actions of many. Similarly, it is impossible for one man to bring back the theatregoing customs and practices of the 1940s. His percussive claps stung the air for a second or two and Joan continued to walk, stately but somehow diminished, onto the stage.
7. Stuff Happens (National Theatre: Olivier) September 2004
David Hare's play was a semi-verbatim, semi-imagined account of the process that led the US and UK to go to war in Iraq. It was exactly what David Hare was born to do, use a huge national (National) stage to explain and debate a subject of recent national and international importance. I remember the audience unusually intervening twice by breaking into applause to support a sentiment expressed on stage. One came when a 'Palestinian Academic' gave a speech that reflected on some of the ironies of the Middle East and ended: 'The victims of the conflict have become the problem. We are the Jews of the Jews'. A similar round of applause greeted Colin Powell's remark to George W. Bush, 'People keep asking, how do we know he's got weapons of mass destruction? How do we know? We've still got the receipts.' I'm less interested in the particular sentiments being applauded than I am in the choice to applaud. It's unusual for British audiences at the National to interrupt a play in this manner to express support for a particular viewpoint. But in this instance, I felt that the moment had been prepared for; eighteen months earlier in February 2003, almost two million people had marched through the streets of London to voice their lack of support for an attack on Iraq. The government had ignored them - and now it was already clear that the WMD, the reason for the attack, were not to be found. And on that march, so great had been the numbers on the streets that there was a serious danger of a crush crossing the river, so the organisers created an additional loop to slow down the flow of people onto Waterloo Bridge. This loop took the marchers down to Upper Ground, to the National Theatre and then spiralling up across the National's concrete terraces before making their way up onto the Bridge. It struck me, as I sat i that auditorium, that for most people in the auditorium this might be the first time they had been back to this theatre since that earlier, ignored act of protest; and probably it was the first time since then that they had been in a crowd of people in such numbers. Even seeing these sentiments expressed on stage felt like a certain kind of protest in which the theatre connected, as the National was always intended to, quite directly with the physical and mental landscape of the nation.
8. The Small Things (Menier Chocolate Factory) February 2005
Paines Plough did a brilliant season at the Chocolate Factory in 2005, called This Other England, which offered four radically unfamiliar linguistic explorations of this country, from four distinctive and diverse writers. The plays were David Greig's Pyrenees, Douglas Maxwell's If Destroyed True, Philip Ridley's Mercury Fur and Enda Walsh's The Small Things. I went to The Small Things with my friend, the playwright Linda McLean. The play is a two-hander, a duet even, between an elderly man and woman who offer us alternating monologues, reminiscing about two childhoods that weave in and out of each other. From the beginning there were noises from somewhere in the audience. I couldn't locate the source - the audience was shallow and very wide and it was hard to look round - but the interruptions became louder and soon more verbal. After about fifteen minutes of this, Bernard Gallagher, playing the man, said to his fellow actor Valerie Lilley 'I think we should stop, Val'. The audience burst into applause. Immediately two ushers appeared. We applauded them. They persuaded what turned out to be a very drunk guy in a tracksuit, about thirty years of age, to leave the auditorium. We applauded his departure. Then Bernard Gallagher said 'let us resume' and we applauded that too. It was cathartic applause of tension and release. It was applause that marked the expulsion from a community and the restoration of order. It was applause that enjoyed the space created by the interruption of performance to add its own additional celebratory interruption of performance.
9. Hedda Gabler (Almeida Theatre) March 2005
I'm sitting in the balcony, waiting for the show to begin. The man next to me is looking at the programme and the list of sponsors for the theatre. He motions to his friend, 'look at these names.' He runs his finger down the list: 'Jew... Jew... Jew...' I confess I am so shocked I don't know how to challenge him or what I would say.
10. Static (Soho Theatre) May 2008
It's my website, I'm allowed one of my own. Static is a play in part about music and in part about loss and in part about love. It has a speech, near the end, when music-obsessive Sarah describes her relationship with Chris, the husband whose sudden and unexpected death has set her own a process of terrible broken grieving. She's slowly coming to terms with the awful truth that he is never coming back. She tells Martin, her friend,
You know when a song starts with all the instruments playing their stuff, but it feels loose and chaotic. There's a kind of rhythm but it feels casual somehow. And then the drums come in, and everything locks into place, everything makes sense, That's what he was in my life. He walked into my life and everything made sense. He was the moment when the drums come in.
I snuck into the theatre and watched a matinée on a hot afternoon. The theatre was about half full, most people were fanning themselves with the script of the play. But as Pauline Lockhart spoke these words, a few rows below me, a woman reached across and put her arm round her boyfriend and squeezed him a little tightly.