thu 20/06/2024

Opinion: Please will you stop talking? | reviews, news & interviews

Opinion: Please will you stop talking?

Opinion: Please will you stop talking?

Theatre-goer sees red: it's time for audiences to pipe down and listen

If you talk in the theatre, this message applies to you

I can tell you the year (1983). I can tell you the theatre (the newly opened Barbican), the actors (Gambon, Sher), and the speech (“Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!”). Hell, I can all but tell you the seat number. Lear and the Fool in the storm stood on a platform mounted on a high pole. It was an arresting way of establishing their elemental isolation. Or it would have been if the gantry gaining the actors access to the platform had been withdrawn.

“That’s not meant to be there,” said the person next door to me. And then louder, “They’ve got it wrong.” My father. I still remember someone turning round and loudly shushing. Reader, they had my full support.

An allergy may not have been born in that precise moment, but it was the first time I witnessed a sotto-voce stalls skirmish. I’ve seen a lot since. Correction: I’ve been in a lot since. And why’s that? Because if you choose to talk as the member of an audience in a theatre while everyone else is listening to the actors, you are fair game and I will hunt you down. You should not talk in the theatre. You really shouldn’t.

A-1940s-cinema-audience-001But if you do, I will tell you, so I will. I will tell you to shut the *%$! up (pictured right: yes, madam, that means you). Perhaps not in as many words. I may ask. I may even say please. In fact to start with, as an opening gambit, I will probably swivel round and sling you an over-the-shoulder look that says it all. Or should do. If you’re in front of me I might tut and/or sigh. Eventually, when you have refused to read the entirely legible signals, I will lean in and say, “Please could you not talk?” But the request will be depth-charged with aggression, laced with loathing. Talking in the theatre makes you a pest, and you know what happens to pests. They get controlled (see below).

fly_swatterNow that we’ve established that, I’ll calm down. For the moment. Let’s do the mature thing and consider whether actually it’s me, a gauleiter policing the stalls from my seat, who is the niggardly threat to the social fabric. I admit – begrudgingly – that I am hypersensitive to this stuff. Heavy nasal breathing gets on my tits. As do people shuffling late into their seats, who cough and splutter in the quiet moments, who laugh at stuff that isn’t meant to be funny. I’m not a big fan of snorers and people like the woman who – at Parsifal last Saturday - waited till the lights had been doused and the music had started before she set about digging into her bag to access her crinkle-wrapped cough sweets at the beginning of every act. I confess that, no, it doesn’t take much to spoil my fun. I sit through shows cross-armed and harrumphy. But these interferences I have learnt to accept as part of the audience condition. People will do these things and they are mostly the result of, in the end, venial fecklessness and stupidity, of selfishness that can just about be pardoned. Some people are morons. Go figure.

Let’s pause here and note, as one wandering past the chimp house at the zoo, the people who can’t turn off their phones. They belong, obviously, to a breed of genetic underling who shouldn’t be let anywhere near a ticket booth. Somehow they sneak in, like dry rot or termites, including the man whose phone detonated in the front row, the evening I was there, in both halves of the Donmar’s award-winning Twelfth Night. Idiocy can strike in the oddest places. I once saw the mother of a very famous film star reach to turn off her trilling phone as her daughter made her West End debut. Cow.

shutup-1I put the word out on Twitter for some horror stories and one came back from the director Fiona Laird. “A guy answered his phone during a show of mine once,” she tells me. “He whispered, ‘I can't talk now, I'm watching a play.’ Then he said, 'Quite good, actually.’ I did think that was quite funny."

Sorry, Fiona, but I don’t. Leaving your phone on is one thing. Talking - that’s another story. An unsilenced phone is a sin of omission. You forgot. You didn’t hear the announcement. You are merely an absent-minded halfwit. But crucially, you didn’t take an active decision to make a noise during a play. Talking is much the greater evil because it is the product of actual ratiocination. The talker has pondered their options and decided that, yes, the most appropriate course of action in the middle of a theatre full of hundreds of people who are all concentrating on the traffic of the stage is to open their mouths and actually say stuff. Actually assume that their words belong in the same audiosphere as Shakespeare and Rattigan. I know! Incredible!!

Before anyone says anything, yes, I am familiar with the argument that talking in the theatre was once upon a time legit. Possibly even obligatory. That the concept of an audience’s Trappist silence is a latter-day orthodoxy imposed by tight-sphinctered bourgeois elitists who conceive of culture as their ring-fenced fiefdom. We all know that one. The groundlings backchatted at Shakespeare’s original Globe. The plays of Richard Brinsley Sheridan were not greeted by reverent hush at Drury Lane. Italians yakked through the first night of Aida and Il Trovatore etc etc etc. I hear you. I hear you all too clearly. Perhaps in the interests of historical authenticity theatre-goers would also welcome a return to the candle lighting which burned almost all pre-Victorian theatres to a crisp. And, come the interval, pissing in a trench.

That was then. And this is now. I ask you, you who are talking in my vicinity. That ticket at the National cost you, say, 50 quid. The ticket of the other person you brought with you so you could have someone to talk to during “To be or not to be” set you back another 50. You’ve coughed up a ton for the privilege of talking instead of listening. Fair enough. Your right. What you maybe haven’t considered is that everyone around paid exactly the same for the privilege of not listening to you and your pal fatuously chewing the fat.

shhh2I worry that I may be coming across as cantankerous. As old. A lot of the yakkers in theatre are, after all, young people lured in by outreach projects and access initiatives. The other day I went to the Old Vic to see A Flea in Her Ear. Up in the circle a party of south-London teenagers were commenting loudly and continuously on the farcical goings-on throughout – too far away for me to make an intervention. Same deal at Greenland at the National: a group dialogue among a party of, I think, French students. In fact the dialogue was available in stereo from the rows behind and in front. I favoured one with the one-fingered international semaphore (pictured above). Theatre does need these people. But theatre also needs them to learn to be quiet. Does this make me crusty? I get an encouraging tweet from Emma Dibdin, 22, currently doing a magazine course at City University. “Three out of my four recent theatre trips have been blighted by yammering,” she says. “Have loads of similarly aged friends who feel the same. If anyone accuses you of fustiness, send 'em our way.” Thank you, Emma. I will.

I’m in the stalls, boiling with rage, shushing like nobody’s business. I wish it could be otherwise, but this is my role in the theatre

I’ve also heard it suggested that if audiences talk, it’s the actors’ fault; they have failed to engage. There’s a small crack in that argument, which runs as follows: simply because they haven’t engaged you, you may well be jumping the gun to assume that they haven’t engaged me. If you’re not enjoying yourself, have the goodness - have the humility - to suffer in silence. And if you have some startling aperçu about the play’s crapness you wish to share, how’s about keeping it for the interval, or for your blog? Take it outside, as the people witnessed by Corinne Furness should have done. “During Lion, Witch & the Wardrobe,” she reports on Twitter, “2 men had an argument which escalated until one swore so loudly the actors actually paused.”

Now and then, of course, actors take the law into their own hands. They break the fourth wall to make their feelings known. The stories are legion. Richard Griffiths headline-grabbingly held up the show during The History Boys. Donald Sinden as Polonius refused to continue until an audience member woke up. Paul Higgins’s fusillade at the front row in Macbeth made the front pages. Ian Hart has famously dressed down a yakker or two. I once witnessed an angry actor intervention myself. (Note it’s always actors, never actresses.) Well, thanks for the citizen's arrests, gents, but I’ll take it from here. I’m in the stalls, boiling with rage, seething with righteousness, shushing like nobody’s business. I wish it could be otherwise, but this is my role in the theatre.

There, I’ll shut up now. On the condition that  you talkers will too. I will close with a story tweeted by Jo Caird. Make of it what you will. “My fave”, she says, “was the v old woman at The Caretaker, who whispered v loudly in first mins of silence, ‘has it started?'”

Talking is much the greater evil because it is the product of actual ratiocination

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I'm with you. Slightly laterally, the major exception to the actors not actresses rule was Patti LuPone famously stopping the show to harangue an audience member for taking photographs. In a move that suggests a severe lack of awareness, someone recorded it...

That Patti Lupone clip is treasurable, David. What happens when words fail and the laying on of hands is necessary? I've been beside myself and done this twice - once practically hitting a young and foolish bass from the Kirov who was very wildly conducting his company's Macbeth along with Gergiev, and the second time restraining a young woman who was explaining the goings-on of, yes, the Scottish play-as-opera again to her grandmother. As the corpses were wheeled along on mortuary trollies in the very quiet introduction to the 'Patria oppressa' chorus, she said very distinctly 'it's Lady Macduff, it's Lady Macduff!' The hand on arm did not go down well and litigation seemed to be looming after the show as the father described me as behaving like a Muslim fanatic. We argued for a bit before exiting hastily. Most outrageous interjection? The Glasgow citizen in raincoat, front row at the Cits back in the 1980s: a very tense moment in Sartre's Altona when a brother raises a gun and seems about to shoot, and into the silence the gentleman suggested 'bang!' rather loudly. Somewhat diffused the tension.

Five or so years ago I was reviewing a mime performance at the ICA. The lights dimmed and the performance started - admittedly in silence - and at exactly the same time the person in front of me answered his phone. I don't think he had any idea that the show had begun and he carried on having his conversation. After I realised he wasn't going to stop of his own accord, I tapped him on the shoulder, but he ignored me. So I gently took the phone out of his hand and closed it (it was one of those clamshell phones) and handed it back to him. He got quite irate and said (nearly shouted) 'What are you doing?' before I pointed at the stage and he crumpled in embarassment. Later, I really wished I hadn't stopped him because the performance was far less entertaining than his conversation. But generally speaking, yes, it's very annoying.

Couldn't agree more, Jasper. There is one place however where you can wheel about and even make out (yes I've seen that happen). Shakespeare's Globe. Actually, the groundlings there happen to create, in their good moments one of the best theatre audiences in London. Sharp as whippets onto every words Capable of galloping with a play if the actors don't watch out. Otherwise, in prosc theatres, it's sit quiet and shut up. It's all a question of eitquette, ain't it. And not everybody seems to be fully acquainted - or even vaguely interested in that. I was fascinated at the WOW concerts the other evening how at least half of the audience had their mobiles flashing away taking pix - nobody turning a hair. imagine that at the Theatre Royal Haymarket or Cottesloe. Different etiquette applies I suppose.

Talking at gigs has long been one of my bugbears; except at civilised venues such as the Barbican and the Festival Hall, at almost every gig I go to there is a constant hubbub from the crowd. I've been to gigs at the Shepherd's Bush Empire where quieter moments (or sometimes entire shows from quieter performers) have been marred or ruined by people shouting at each other in the bar at the rear of the ground-floor level. People seem to treat gigs as social events rather than music-going occasions, which seems terribly expensive and wasteful. I like the Jazz Cafe's approach: "STFU" is printed down one of the pillars, and generally it is observed. I know it's not terribly rock-and-roll to want people to pay attention to what's happening on stage, but rock and roll has grown up a bit; also, tickets are not cheap so I'd rather have my music unadulterated by inane chatter, thank you. (And by the way, camera-phone people: please just put them down and enjoy the moment. It can't really be captured.) My sentiments echo those of the management of the late, lamented Luminaire in Kilburn, which had had signs saying, "Quiet please. We're a live venue not a pub. If you've come to chat to your pals when the bands are on, you're in the wrong place. Please leave."

Thanks for these comments. Re gigyak, I once had the privilege during the wordless skat vocal solo in 'The Great Gig in the Sky' at a Roger Waters concert at the 02 to listen to a very eminent theatre director talking throughout. &%^ing w£**&er

Stage managing a show at the Duke of York's theatre many years ago, I remember all action on stage stopping as the actors watched and listened to a couple in one of the boxes making enthusiastic and noisy love.

The woman I asked to stop talking during the overture to BRB's Swan Lake took me to task in the interval on the grounds that "it hadn't even started yet, there was **** all happening!" Bet she wouldn't have ahd the guts to say that to the orchestra's faces.

Brilliant piece Jasper! It should be pasted in the front of every programme. The worst recent experience was a large gaggle of 'fans' at the Crucible -'squeeing' and taking photos whenever John Simm walked on stage. I believe he dealt with the offenders himself at one performance -or got FOH staff to do so. I've glared at /poked in the ribs/ even kicked sleepers and snorers many times, too.

Great article! I went to see Krapp’s Last Tape with Michael Gambon earlier this year. Someone’s ipod was playing the Grease megamix throughout just in front of me – I was boiling with rage by the end!

Totally agree, but beware: when I asked a couple of young blokes who chatted all through Earthquakes in London at the National to please desist, one of them threatened to punch me in the head. Nice.

Thanks for a great article. I so agree. And its not just those who talk. Even worse are those who appear to have ants in their pants and fidget continuously throughout the performance. This is bad enough if you're watching a play, but its definitely worse if you're watching the ballet. This happened to me at Covent Garden last year. The guy in the seat in front of me did NOT stop fidgeting the whole evening - leaning over to his partner and moving around in his seat. It was so bad I even considered apologising to people sitting behind me as I had to keep moving to be able to see the action on stage. In the end I just sat still and missed some of the dancing. I go to see the Royal Ballet at Covent Garden regularly and a large proportion of those who ruin others enjoyment of the performance seem, from my observation, to be from overseas. Is there a different etiquette for theatre going in other countries?

Over the years I've experienced variations on most of the incidents described here, but last night there was a first. At the Teenage Cancer Trust comedy show at the Royal Albert Hall a women arrived late, shuffled along my row, sat next to me and opened up a laptop. Emboldened by Jasper's fine article I complained for the first time rather than suffer in silence and she moved further along the empty row. It turned out she was working for the charity putting on the show, which did prompt a twinge of guilt, but I shouldn't think that was much consolation for the people behind her.

Micki, I would have to say in response to your question about furriners that New York audiences are much the worst I've experienced. On Broadway middle America loudly talks and munches its way through something not that great, and then gives it an instant standing ovation; Carnegie Hall was perhaps more disquieting - a constant thrum of low-level restlessness, nothing that one could really ask to stop, but the lack of concentration was palpable and couldn't have helped an orchestra and conductor in desperate need of active listening.

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