David Lister: Clap-happy crowds can be an irritant

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The Independent Online

Before Rufus Wainwright came on stage to perform the songs from his new album at Sadler's Wells this week, an official asked the audience to be careful about applauding. More precisely, he requested the audience not to applaud the separate numbers and to hold back until the very end "as the exit is part of the performance".

It's a slightly pompous way of putting it, perhaps; but it touches on a syndrome affecting not just rock and pop gigs, but every corner of the arts. Audiences have become clap-happy.

It seems bizarre to lament, in the performing arts, any demonstration of spontaneous enthusiasm by an audience. But actually applause can be an irritant, and it can interrupt and distort proceedings. Perhaps that is why in Thursday night's TV debate of the party leaders (at a stretch, a branch of the performing arts) applause was banned.

At classical music concerts, applause before the end of a symphony is, by common consent, unofficially banned. There is a slightly snobbish element to this, admittedly, with true aficionados wanting to show that they know that the pause at the conclusion of a movement does not indicate the end of a work. And those same aficionados will go out of their way to clear their throats after each movement as some sort of mating call to other aficionados. But the principle is a good one. Hold applause until the end.

In theatre, increasingly in recent years, the audience feels it necessary to burst into applause at the entrance of a star, interrupting the rhythm of a scene.

When I saw Peter Hall's excellent production of A Midsummer Night's Dream in Kingston recently, Dame Judi Dench's entrance as Titania, queen of the fairies, prompted a burst of applause, temporarily destroying the magic. This "star awareness" applause is unproductive, ruining any suspension of disbelief built up by the piece as well as any company ethos among the performers. There's a case for an applause ban there I think.

Opera and ballet are trickier, as individual arias and dances can, as tours de force in their own right, provoke applause, and virtually always do. Somehow, the interruption to the action does not seem to matter in those art forms, though when one thinks about it, an actor speaking the "To be or not to be" soliloquy is not so very different from a diva singing a well-known aria. It's a new interpretation of a classic piece of art. Applause after one is normal, applause after the other would rightly be judged absurd. There is applause confusion built in to the art forms.

Rock and pop music audiences live in a state of permanent applause, much as Marxists used to believe that we lived in a state of permanent revolution. It's a good 50 years too late to do anything about that. But Rufus Wainwright still has a point.

At the more sedate, structured and intricate gigs such as his, or say Radiohead's, when the ending of song is a carefully thought out "exit", the clap-happy spectators who applaud early to show solidarity with the performer can be an irritant, and can break the spell of the performer they wish to praise.

Outlawing applause until the end of a performance is not quite as crazy as it sounds.

Macbeth? Violent? Never!

Those of a nervous disposition, as they used to say, can go to the theatre safe in the knowledge that they will always be warned when there is a nasty shock in store. Programmes and front of house notices increasingly alert the audience if there is to be strobe lighting, small explosions, gunfire or even smoking on stage.

But I've never seen a warning quite like the one on the Shakespeare's Globe website for its upcoming production of Macbeth. It says: "This production will draw on the primitive, violent climate of 11th-century Scotland."

In other words, it will be Macbeth. But, thanks for the warning. I hope that when the Globe stages Romeo and Juliet, we will be informed that "This production features scenes of sexual intimacy between underage teenagers" and that King Lear "contains moments of filial ingratitude". Forewarned is forearmed.

The trouble with being a rock star's son

James McCartney, son of Paul, is recording his debut album and has just been on his first tour of Britain. Harper Simon, also son of a Paul, has also been working on a debut album, and it has just been released. There's nothing immediately strange about this. The children of rock legends do tend to flirt with a career in music. What is odd is the ages of these two musical offspring: James McCartney, is 32, and Harper Simon is 37.

Thirty-two is unusually old for a start in music, and 37 is positively ancient. What kept these two? Are they naturally indecisive? Or did they spend years agonising before taking the plunge because they were apprehensive about the inevitable comparisons with their Dads? My own hunch is that they waited and waited, thinking that their fathers' stars might fade, that they would stop performing and making albums, and the two juniors would then be received as genuine new kids on the block, with their parents just distant memories.

They might have to wait until well into their fifties for that.