Stage rage: Are actors right to berate their audiences?

When actor Ian Hart attacked a disruptive theatregoer, playwright Ben West wasn't surprised: audiences often behave appallingly, he argues
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

As if we didn't have enough to worry about – what with the impending economic Armageddon, climate change, and who's going to emerge as winner of Strictly Come Dancing – along comes another challenge: the prospect of being verbally and possibly physically abused next time we attend the theatre.

The character actor Ian Hart's recent actions, when he ran from the stage of London's Duke of York's Theatre to lunge at a member of the audience during a performance of Speaking in Tongues, demonstrates this worrying trend most clearly. He took exception to punter Gerard Earley standing up to applaud and accused him of talking during the performance. Hart has previously stated that he dislikes audiences. Isn't that a bit like a teacher saying that they hate children?

Incidents of stage rage are becoming increasingly common, partly due to the advent of the mobile phone. Most notably, Richard Griffiths berated one audience member while performing in The History Boys, Kevin Spacey came out of character when he was interrupted by another mobile during The Iceman Cometh, while Ken Stott, appearing in Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge, stopped the play because of some noisy schoolchildren.

It's difficult to know whether to applaud or deplore the actions of these tetchy thesps. On the one hand, it's terribly bad form for audience members to treat the theatre auditorium as their own living room, where they can natter away, scrunch up crisp packets or cheer to their hearts' content as they may when watching television.

Yet when an actor has a hissy fit in the theatre, comes out of character and rejoins the real world, that magic theatrical spell they and their colleagues have worked so hard to create is instantly lost, perhaps for the rest of the evening. Isn't it unreasonable for an actor to expect complete silence and impeccable behaviour for the whole duration of the performance in a room of perhaps 1000 people? For them not to react at all to what's being played out to them, whether it causes extreme boredom (an ideal moment to reach for those Maltesers and fruit gums, which are invariably packaged in the noisiest cellophane and plastics known to man) or to be moved enough by the proceedings that it causes one to stand up and applaud – as poor Mr Earley was doing when he had his altercation with Mr Hart.

As an audience member, it isn't always a straightforward thing to know when it is time to leave. Earlier this year I attended a performance of Hamlet at the Wyndhams Theatre in the West End and the leading man, Jude Law, glared at me a few times – I was near the front of the stalls – when I started coughing during his soliloquies. I was torn: do I leave – which could have caused more disruption than an occasional cough, as I'd have had to fight through a whole row of seats even more tightly packed than those in an aeroplane owned by Ryanair – or do I bloody well stay, as the tickets had hardly been easy to come by.

Last month, a theatregoer projectile-vomited off the upper balcony, splattering six members of the audience below, which I suppose would be grounds for leaving the auditorium in most cases. It happened during a performance of Breakfast at Tiffany's at the Haymarket Theatre, again in London. It wasn't clear whether this was a critical appraisal of the play or whether the unfortunate audience member was simply out of sorts that night, but Anna Friel, who was singing at the time in her role as the Manhattan socialite Holly Golightly, must be congratulated for not missing a beat during her warbling – rather than aborting the performance and racing up the stairs to berate the miscreant.

I have had a large number of opportunities to see things from the point of view of the actors in the last few years as I've been heavily involved in the production of a theatre show I wrote and co-produced called Gertrude's Secret, which has been touring theatres throughout Britain for the last three years. Nearly 30 actors have taken part in the show, including Prunella Scales, Natalie Cassidy, Angela Griffin and Helen Fraser. For most performances I have spent part of the time backstage or in the bar as well as in the stalls, as there's only a certain number of times you can see a performance without going mad, even if you wrote it yourself.

In that time, during the show, we've had all sorts of disruption from audiences. You get the occasional heckler, which is maybe a by-product of the huge growth in popularity of stand-up comedians going around the theatre circuit, but there's still no place for heckling in drama. We've had noisy drunks and Olympic-class snorers, and on several occasions elderly women storming out while announcing something like, "Filthy language, I've never been more disgusted in my life," even though the publicity material states clearly that the show contains some strong language, and in reality, the language is rather tame by today's standards.

One of the show's longstanding actresses, Felicity Duncan, says: "I often get at least one member of the audience repeating my lines quite loudly straight after I've said them, especially the punchline if it's a joke. It's slightly off-putting, but can be amusing at times. But it doesn't anger me."

We have even had a husband and wife conducting a full-scale marital argument during the performance. This was all the more curious because it was in the intimate surroundings of the 88-seat New End Theatre in Hampstead, London. It's easy to anonymously cause disruption in the dark corners of a vast venue, but it takes some front to do so in a cosy little auditorium where you are so close to everyone that most of them can see the colour of your eyes.

The couple seemed to be acting out a play of their own, sitting silently to begin with, but then not being able to resist reigniting the argument they had clearly been entrenched in before curtain up. A few snide comments under their breaths (I paraphrase) – Her: "Last place I want to be at now is at a play with you." Him: "Couldn't agree more." – swiftly escalated into an exchange of insults – Her: "You're hopeless. Always late. A complete bore." Him: "Oh, why don't you shut up, you silly cow."

I'm sure some of the audience at first thought this was part of the show, until an usher herded them out. A pity she did: I thought it worked quite well as a dramatic device, especially when coupled with the sharing of the intimate details of the husband's sexual prowess.

We once had a fight between two young men, at Chelmsford Civic Theatre, and blows were briefly exchanged, although no blood was drawn. I would like to think that the writing and acting moved them so much it led them to violence, but from what I could ascertain the disagreement was over a personal matter rather than the show. It is curious that people feel that they can't suspend daily life when they are attending a live performance, especially when they have paid for the privilege of being there.

Not one actor, I'm glad to say, felt the need to verbally berate or physically attack a member of the audience when these things happened – at least not when on stage, anyway.

It is not only the audience that can behave badly during a performance, but the buildings themselves can, too. Some theatres maintain rattling air-conditioning units that could teach a few things on an African drumming course, and doors into the auditorium that, on opening, can drown the voice of the most deafening actor on account of their rusting hinges.

Some theatres seem to have a policy of only letting latecomers in during the quietest moments, when it is most disruptive, and we've also had ushers seemingly oblivious to the fact that there's a performance going on, either leaving the exit doors wide open so that the audience nearby is given a backing track of the sound of the bar being furnished with interval drinks, or simply walking in and out of the auditorium for no discernible reason at regular intervals during the performance.

Not only do actors have to put up with all the distractions of badly behaved punters, badly maintained theatres, and sometimes badly-behaved staff, but, with our show at least, there have been occasions when kick-off time has been fast-approaching when a selected prop item goes missing or one of the cast gets stuck on our esteemed motorway system – or the theatre's lighting box packs in. With such distractions, coupled with the general underlying tension that actors have to deal with before a performance – and maybe illness or a calamity in their private lives as well, on occasion – it is no surprise that they may be prone to flying off the handle from time to time.