Terence Blacker: No wonder the West End is in crisis

Griffiths should have been fined heavily and forced to apologise in public for his silly, yobbish behaviour
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The Independent Online

Something rather impressive happens when a fat man loses his temper. It is as if his grievance is as swollen and exaggerated as his frame and that, when it snaps like a belt around his waist giving up the struggle, the explosion will cause a horrific mess. Fleck-lipped rage is never easy to deal with, but it is a fattie in a bate that is particularly scary.

So the audience at Wyndham's Theatre earlier this week, particularly those in the front stalls, must have felt emotionally drained when emerging from a matinee performance of Heroes, and for reasons that had nothing to do with the play. At the key moment during a climactic scene, a mobile phone rang and one of the play's stars, the Bunteresque Richard Griffiths, completely lost his rag with the woman to whom it belonged.

According to the play's producer David Pugh, quoted by the Society of London Theatre, Griffiths "had just had enough, so he walked to the front of the stage and asked her if her fucking phone was going to ring one more time or could he finish the play. He said, 'There's 750 people sitting here, and if I was them I'd sue you for spoiling their afternoon. In fact, why don't you leave the theatre now. Fuck off.' " As the poor humiliated woman left, the audience gave the big man on stage a standing ovation.

Of course, one has become used to the idea that people going to the theatre check in their brains and good sense with their coats before the performance, clapping like performing seals at the lamest shows and laughing wildly at the most plonkingly unfunny lines. All the same, the behaviour of the audience at the Wyndham's suggests that they were a peculiarly stupid and easily-cowed bunch.

In fact, if they were to sue anyone, it should the famous, well-paid actor on stage who had lacked the professional discipline and personal self-control to stay in character rather than throwing a big-boy wobbly at the behaviour of a member of the audience. The unfortunate woman in the stalls might have been somewhat thoughtless, but, perhaps fortunately for her, going to the theatre is not her full-time job; appearing on stage pretending to be someone else is Griffiths'.

If we were not living in strange, star-struck world in which actors can say or do pretty much anything they want and still get a standing ovation from their sheep-like fans, Griffiths would have been treated like a footballer who flicks an obscene gesture at fans during a game: fined heavily and forced to apologise in public for his silly, yobbish behaviour.

Instead, he is a hero, celebrated in the media. Just as blubbing on TV chat-shows was once a useful way for celebrities to point up their essential humanity, so today a showy curmudgeonliness is the favoured way for public figures of a certain age to make themselves popular.

Griffiths, for example, has already hit publicity pay-dirt through the simple expedient of bullying members of the public. Last year, while appearing in The History Boys at the National Theatre, he ejected from the front row a theatregoer whose telephone had rung repeatedly and who later turned out to be deaf. One might wonder how much pleasure is to be derived from Alan Bennett's wonderful lines by a man unable to hear his own phone, but there is a more important point. Griffiths, a terrific actor, has become a serial audience-abuser, quite happy when it suits him to step out of role and assume his real, off-stage persona as a modishly grumpy personality.

When actors take to haranguing members of the audience, can there be any wonder that the West End theatre is in crisis? Going to a see a play is an expensive, hit-or-miss business at the best of times; add to the experience the possibility of public humiliation and most sane people will play safe and go to the cinema.

Unfortunately, the fact that audiences seem to like a bit of bullying is likely to set a trend. Innately vain, actors tend to respond well to ovations. They are soon liable to find the smallest excuse to stride ostentatiously downstage in order to throw a tantrum about rustling paper or laughter at the wrong line or the fact that someone in the front row has fallen asleep.

It was probably Michael Parkinson who was first responsible for encouraging actors in the belief that it was not merely their ability to perform that was interesting, but their essential selves, including their half-baked views on anything and everything. The process has now gone too far to be reversed: it is now so accepted that a talent for professional impersonation brings with it all sorts of personal wonderfulness that the few, brave performers who resist the lure of being off-screen celebrities are deemed to be suspect and peculiar.

Surely, though, we can at least expect actors to remain in character for the couple of hours that they are on stage; it is the last bastion of thespian etiquette. Let the theatres fine those with misbehaving mobiles, as is done in New York, and perhaps issue a West End banning order, but the mimes on stage should be professional enough to keep going.

Life is full of irritations - personally, I would be rather cheesed off if I found myself in an economy airline seat next to Richard Griffiths on a flight to Australia - and it is up to the grown-ups among us to make the best of it without losing our tempers.