Tom Sutcliffe: So you think you can shock me...

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This must be some kind of record I think. Watching Danny Boyle's new production of Frankenstein the other night I was a little surprised when a couple of people just down the row gathered their things and headed for the exit door. Not an unprecedented event in the theatre, I know. But this happened only about two or three minutes after the play had begun. Had they just realised that they were in the wrong theatre altogether? It seemed unlikely given that this was a sell-out night and the National Theatre's ushers are pretty good at checking tickets. It had to be a response to what was happening on stage, which, it's only fair to clarify, wasn't entirely inconceivable. The thing is that Boyle's version of Frankenstein begins with birth of the monster, brought into the world stark naked and hideously welted, writhing and twisting as he works out how to operate his body (I can only hope that the Olivier's stage does not have splinters, because if it does the prospect of a horribly intimate injury seems high). And while stage nudity itself isn't unprecedented these days, the sight of a male member flapping free can do odd things to some people. The refugees appeared to be a mother and her young son. Was she embarrassed on his behalf? Or indignant herself? Or had it just dawned on him that this wasn't going to be a bolt-through-the-neck London Dungeon-type experience? Unless it was you and you write in and tell us we'll never know, I guess. We only know that some sense of affront had come to a head with startling speed. If only they could have clung on for a little longer. A pair of trousers turned up within 15 minutes.

I confess that a little part of me was pleased though. Not because I want anyone to have a bad time at the theatre or leave with their feathers ruffled, but simply at the discovery that feather-ruffling isn't entirely extinct. The previous week, at Covent Garden for the premiere of Mark-Anthony Turnage's Anna Nicole it had seemed as if audience indignation was entirely a thing of the past. The libretto dropped the F-bomb and the C-bomb and the S-bomb (you'll have to work that one out for yourselves) and yet the audience barely blinked. Even during a bitter and misanthropic aria by Anna Nicole's sheriff mother, dripping with bodily fluids and sexual disgust, there seemed to be barely a ripple from the audience. I'll own up... I was a little shocked and discomfited by the language myself, though I've never thought of myself as a prude. It seemed to me that that's what the opera wanted at that point. But I instinctively understood that if I made any outward sign of this at all – a sotto voce gasp or an expression of disgust – the result would be a kind of Bateman cartoon. A hundred boiled egg eyes would have swivelled to stare and glare at "The Man Who Showed He Was Shocked". It's just not the done thing to reveal that you're affected by a drama.

This is an affectation in itself I think. I was reminded of the story, possibly apocryphal, of an Eighties experimental theatre group in Germany who wished to explore the boundaries of bourgeois respectability. Their plan was to rupture the fourth wall and provoke a mass walk-out by disgusted theatre patrons, thus creating a galvanising sense of theatrical moment. Unfortunately, they discovered that there was no insult, however foul, that would effectively puncture the audience's sophisticated sense that – within the confines of art – anything went. It was only when they started wrapping sheets around the people in the front row and whacking them over the head that the audience felt they had to draw a line, and then only in limited self-defence. And though there are things that could provoke a riot – or a growl of repudiation – from a contemporary audience, they're probably so extreme that they would be dull anyway. It isn't theatre that is at fault here, either (I'm not arguing that it's too bland or for affront for affront's sake). It's a kind of terror in audiences that they will look naive if they express anything but knowing savoir faire. I still don't understand whether that pair at Frankenstein fled in embarrassment or disgust. But at least they had the nerve to be true to what they were feeling.

One of the most extraordinary epitaphs on tap

I was surprised to read that Bunhill Fields Cemetery in London is to be given Grade One protected status – not because it doesn't deserve it, but because it was slightly startling to learn that it hadn't happened long ago (though I don't suppose that people redevelop cemeteries all that blithely, so it can't have been much at risk). It will always enjoy a special affection amongst anyone who worked at The Independent in the early days because our first offices overlooked this old Nonconformist burial ground, and there was something inspiring not just about the space – a little patch of established trees and grass in the middle of the city – but also in having the resting places of such distinguished writers as John Bunyan, William Blake, and Daniel Defoe just outside the door. They were always a fixture for any visitors to the office. But Bunhill Fields' greatest ornament, in my view, was the tomb of one of its less-famous inhabitants – Dame Mary Page. Dame Mary suffered, heroically, from dropsy, and her tomb records that "in 67 months she was tapp'd 60 times, had taken away 240 gallons of water without ever repining at her case or ever fearing the operation". I don't suppose she could match Defoe's novels or Blake's poems, but when it comes to funerary inscriptions Dame Mary eclipses them both.

Good, bad or just plain confusing

Online film recommendation site Moki has posted an intriguing interactive graph which purports to offer visual proof that "movies are getting worse" (http://moki.tv/ blog). Looking at the "20 most popular movies" for the past 20 years (it's not clear as to what the criteria is based on), it then grades each movie by how "polarising" it was – that is, how sharply divergent responses were. Moki's assumption is that a polarising movie is one that has cynically aimed itself at a single demographic (like the Twilight films) and can happily live with the fact that thousands will hate it. Similarly, it argues, sequels (which hone in on a set formula) become more polarising as the run extends.

But I did wonder about the underlying premise. A polarising movie may simply be an exercise in multiplex milking or it may just be doing something so eccentric that like or dislike becomes a bit of a lottery. I felt a bit like this after watching Enda Walsh's new play Penelope – which produced fiercely polarised responses from critics. I liked its verbal excess while quite a few reviewers I trust hated it. But the fact that they couldn't persuade me I was wrong, or vice versa, seemed a hallmark of some kind of fresh endeavour. Polarised responses don't always mean the movie's bad – just that some people haven't got it yet.

t.sutcliffe@independent.co.uk

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