Arifa Akbar: Let’s ban the latecomers from dramatic readings

"A light appeared deep inside the audience, beaming like a gig-lamp in the hands of a woman below me. It was a Blackberry"

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If you’ve ever studied German Modernist theatre then a particular Brechtian technique might be familiar: that of “dramatic interruption” when whatever is happening on stage suddenly stops or zooms off in a different direction. Then there’s another kind of interruption which emanates offstage, from within the audience. Whether Brecht would have approved of these “halting” moments is something we will come to later, but not before visiting the one-off dramatic reading of A Christmas Carol earlier this week, narrated thrillingly by Griff Rhys Jones as Dickens, among other actors at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in the Southbank Centre, London.

Bill Paterson – as Scrooge – had just made his gloomy, ghost-escorted journey to former and future parallel worlds, and these bleak visions had melted his meanness, awakened his humanity. He pledged to live in the past, present and future, to remember where he had come from and where he was going. Rhys Jones lowered his voice, Patterson filled his with a tremble. We, the audience, were rapt.

And then the dramatic interruption. A light, which appeared deep inside the audience, beaming like a gig-lamp in the hands of a woman three rows below me. It was a Blackberry illuminated like a beacon before us all at the moment Scrooge was voicing his tremulous resolve to live in all three dimensions of time.

If only she could live in the present, I thought. Or at least for the duration of the hour and a half long performance. If only we all could. Theatre, and theatrical readings, offer one of the few remaining spaces where we switch off our portable electronic detritus, safe in the knowledge that we have paid to sit among others – 900 others in this instance – to partake in a collective experience that is built to train our concentrations on the present moment. Perhaps the woman shouldn’t be singled out. She did nothing more than scroll through her emails and then she put the phone away. It was a momentary lapse. It drew my own hand infectiously to my jacket to feel for mine.

This isn’t the gravest offence, by far. Earlier, a stream of people had walked through the dark, long after the lights had dimmed to take their seats, beers in hand. They threw unwelcome silhouettes across a stage of dramatic light and shadow. I also heard the rustle of food being unwrapped and eaten all around me. Someone not far away had clearly brought a vacuum-wrapped sandwich which let off plastic screeches as it was torn and peeled back. There was also a chorus of coughing from the audience at every pregnant pause or momentary silence from the stage.

Is this the way it should be? Rhys Jones wasn’t offended by the idea of a picnic being consumed at a reading. Brecht didn’t mind audience bustle one bit, Rhys Jones pointed out: he thought the eating and talking added to the collective theatrical experience. Maybe he would have felt differently had cellophane-wrapped sandwiches been invented in his day. And can these Brechtian rules apply to a reading in which actors are standing before a microphone to narrate, when a different kind of concentration is required, and when the action itself is not enacted on stage but must be imagined by the audience?

It was the late-coming that got to James Runcie, the director of this dramatised reading and head of literature and spoken word at the Southbank.

“People walking in late are beginning to drive me up the wall,” he said, adding that there are other performance spaces in which a zero tolerance to lateness is employed, such as classical musical concerts. “Maybe we need to think about that,” he said.

Maybe the Southbank should think about it. I have had to wait in the wings at the National Theatre for a scene to end before being permitted to tip-toe in, and the wait deterred me from future lateness. I know that if I don’t get to the BFI on time, I may have to forfeit attendance if I’m more than 10 minutes late, and they can’t find me a seat at the back. I always manage to arrive as the lights are dimmed. A lock-down is a huge incentive. Runcie says that sometimes dramatic readings are deliberately held back for five minutes to avoid disruption, which sounds like an idea, but it doesn’t ward off the people who have a far more relaxed idea of attendance, and would rather stock up on beer than make for their seats. What would Brecht have made of that?

Flawless lessons in feminism, R&B style, from Beyoncé

It’s always interesting to see which novelists diversify into other, popular realms, and which are co-opted into them. And who can top Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s cameo in Beyoncé’s single, “ ***Flawless”? The singer sampled the writer’s TEDxEuston speech, made in April and entitled We Should All Be Feminists, on the limits often placed on women (“We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls, ‘you can have ambition, but not too much’.”).

If feminism had been gradually creeping back in the psyche of young women after decades of being reviled, then Beyoncé’s sampling of Ngozi Adichie’s speech must surely have legitimised the cause in one fell, pop, swoop.

Ngozi Adichie, an award-winning novelist whose latest novel, Americanah, has been on numerous “best novels of 2013” lists, has done a TED talk before this one, in 2009, in which she speaks of The Danger of a Single Story, describing her own endeavour to find an authentic cultural voice after growing up on a literary diet of the American and English canon. It’s well worth a listen, and not just for Beyoncé fans.