Are you sitting comfortably? You soon will be, in Stratford-upon-Avon, at least. Yesterday, the Royal Shakespeare Theatre took delivery of 1,040 new seats for its theatre, the latest stage in the £112.8m redevelopment of the home of the Bard, ahead of its grand reopening in November.
Fresh from Italy, the new seats are manufactured by Poltrona Frau, which has previously designed seats for Ferrari and Maserati. As such, they claim to offer "comfort within a tight seat envelope", "curved foam cushions providing good lower back support" and, alarmingly, "rapidly deployable foldaway seats" – for those looking to making a Formula 1-style speedy exit from a particularly turgid History Play, perhaps.
There will be, improbably, 24 types of seat, ranging from the narrower cheap seats to wider "superseats", and 70 per cent will have arms. Arms! Just imagine. A machine has been busily stimulating a decade of wear and tear, or "sitting and tipping", and now, one year on, the month-long installation process can begin. All of which rather puts Cleopatra's burnish'd throne in the shade.
You can see why they've gone to such an effort. The discomfort of our older theatres is a well-worn tale. The West End is a particularly egregious offender with its sub-Ryanair leg-room, moth-eaten upholstery and squeaky springs. Two years ago at the press night for The Deep Blue Sea at the Vaudeville Theatre, one critic was brought back down to earth with a bump when his aisle seat collapsed under him in a pile of dusty plush and woodworm. Given the choice, who wouldn't rather luxuriate in the padded grey thrones of the National Theatre or the Royal Court's leather recliners, over the ratty, red creakers of the West End?
But I wonder whether the RSC is missing the point a little with its luxury car seats. Shouldn't it be more concerned with the suspension of our disbelief than simply our suspension? Indeed, its focus on creature comforts could be seen as out of touch with the theatrical vogue for discomfiting audiences at every possible opportunity.
Last week, I found myself watching a play while seated on a folding chair in a King's Cross car park, lightly misted with drizzle. Five hundred others joined me. Since the theatre company Punchdrunk burst on to the scene with a production of Faust in a dank and dripping Wapping warehouse in 2006, there have been plays in railway tunnels, derelict buildings and on the backs of lorries, with audiences forced to sit on freezing-cold rooftops, or trail around pitch-black basements – sell-outs, every one.
These are extreme cases, where the oddity of the experience is part of the appeal, but it holds true for more conventional theatre, too. Audiences will put up with a little inconvenience – from stiff joints to incipient hypothermia – if they think that a play is worth it. How else to explain the eternal scrapping for groundling tickets at Shakespeare's Globe? At the Royal Court, always playfully flexible with their space, I've perched on high white stools and crouched on cardboard boxes, just to be closer to the action. And every year, the Edinburgh Fringe plays out like a month-long endurance test, packing punters on to rock-hard benches in tinny Portakabins like so many sardines.
It's hardly scientific but I'm pretty sure that you could plot a graph of fidgeting audience versus quality of play: the more shifting around in the stalls, the less excitement on the stage. Those initial fumbles with coats and handbags and grumbles about leg-room ought to melt away once the drama starts to unfold.
Theatre-goers are a remarkably resilient bunch – happily sitting through day-long Nicholas Nicklebys, standing in the rain for Romeo and Juliet and following actors down murky tunnels so long as there is a good show at the end of it. It's the same impulse that will attract 177,500 revellers to Glastonbury this weekend – rain, shine or mudslide – to see the greatest music show on earth. Like any regularly benumbed theatre-goer, then, I welcome the RSC's new commitment to comfort and armrests. Just as long as it remembers – the play's the thing.Reuse content