He considered himself impervious to stage horror, but after taking part in a research project monitoring audience’s heart-rate activity while watching live theatre, Fergus Morgan has reassessed the impact of bloody drama
Like most critics, I like to assume an air of cool-headed detachment when confronted with blood and gore on stage. I try to adopt an icy air of “you can’t shock me, I’ve seen this all before”, a stoic poker face Lady Gaga would envy.
So when the Royal Shakespeare Company invited me to be a guinea pig in a new research project monitoring audience heart rates in the face of stage violence, I was pretty sure my pulse would stay as relaxed as my prose. How wrong I was.
The project, conducted jointly by the RSC and Ipsos Mori, was aimed at understanding the difference in audience reaction to three theatrical mediums – live performance, cinema broadcasts and theatre experienced via virtual-reality headsets.
Live theatre’s power to set the pulse racing has never been in doubt. Earlier this month, researchers from University College London and the University of Lancaster monitored audience members during a performance of Dreamgirls.
The researchers found that the fluctuations in their heart rate were comparable to those of a professional tennis player during a long rally. And that was Dreamgirls.
Imagine if they had been watching Katie Mitchell’s production of Cleansed, staged at the National last year, whose graphic scenes of torture and rape prompted 40 walk-outs and five people to faint in its first week. Surely cinema and VR can’t compete with that?
Pippa Bailey, head of innovation for Ipsos Mori in the UK, says: “It’s well proven that, because of our fight-or-flight response, our adrenaline will go up if something frightening or threatening is going to happen, and our heart rate will follow.”
Yeah, but not mine, right?
Live cinema broadcasts haven’t quite revolutionised the way audiences experience theatre, but they’ve certainly had an impact.
In its first season, National Theatre Live broadcast four performances to just over 300 venues, reaching a quarter of a million people. During the 2016/17 season, 2,500 venues were involved, spread across 60 countries.
Nearly 400,000 people saw NT Live screenings in the UK alone. Like it or not, live cinema broadcasts have become part of our theatrical ecology. But are they as good as the real thing? Does theatre affect people as much in the cinema as it does on stage?
And what about the theatre of the future? With 360-degree filming and VR headsets becoming increasingly accessible, do you even need to leave home to feel a theatrical thrill any more?
“Theatre exists to have an emotional impact on people,” says Becky Loftus, the RSC’s head of audience insight, “and yet a lot of the research into cinema broadcasts has had a practical focus. Is it going to stop people going to the theatre? That’s the question everyone is worried about. But we want to understand things on another level.”
Bailey, who is spearheading the project with Loftus, adds: “We want to use that data to help us understand the difference between emotional engagement in the theatre and emotional engagement with other mediums.”
A total of 107 people, drawn from the RSC’s audience database, were kitted up with electronic equipment so their heart rates could be monitored during three performances over the summer.
Some witnessed the show live in person at Stratford, some saw it on screen during the production’s cinema broadcast, and some experienced it via a VR headset – a recorded performance filmed with a 360-degree camera.
Bailey and Loftus picked the right show for emotional engagement: Titus Andronicus. Shakespeare’s most violent play, it’s a swords-and-sandals bloodbath featuring mutilation, rape, murder and cannibalism.
More than 100 people fainted during Lucy Bailey’s notoriously graphic staging of the play at the Globe in 2014, including one critic. Surely a coup for the production.
Blanche McIntyre’s staging for the RSC, the production selected for us heart-rate guinea pigs to watch, hasn’t caused as much revulsion, but The Stage reviews editor Natasha Tripney still called it “painful to watch”, with some moments “bordering on the unbearable”.
Representing the critics this time around, not only was I determined not to pass out, I was sure that barely a flicker would register in my heart rate beyond the normal levels.
The researchers strapped a Fitbit-style heart-rate monitor on to my wrist and I ventured into the Royal Shakespeare Theatre to watch the show.
“This is okay,” I told myself. David Troughton was pretty good as Titus and Martin Hutson was nicely sinewy as Saturninus. Robert Innes Hopkins’ set was impressive but, I thought: “The violence isn’t very affecting. I know it’s coming.”
This, it turns out, is one of the variables Loftus and Bailey considered. “It was really important to balance the sample of participants,” Bailey explains. “We tried to balance gender, because heart rates differ between male and female, we tried to balance fitness, and we tried to balance awareness of the play. If you’re aware of what’s coming in the play, you’re likely to be less shocked.”
“We’re also interested in the idea of people being unshockable,” says Loftus, adding: “Are people, because of Game of Thrones or Quentin Tarantino films or whatever, more inured to violence on a screen? Is there something about being in the room, watching the brutalisation happen, that still has an effect?”
I was surprised to find that the results show I’m not as coolly detached as I thought, even though I’ve seen all seven seasons of Game of Thrones and am familiar with the plot of Titus Andronicus.
My face may have remained impressively stoic, but heart rate increased above average at key moments in the play, including violent scenes such as Alarbus’ death and Lavinia’s mutilation, but particularly during the comical bits. Well, I found them funny – my body tells me I find Shakespeare’s bloody revenge tragedy amusing, it seems.
In general, the results highlight a lack of disparity between all three experiences, with the number of times participants’ heart rates peaked above average consistent in the theatre, in the cinema, and in the VR headset.
In all three mediums, audience members’ hearts do the same amount of work as they would during a five-minute cardio session. Theatre, apparently, can be just as much of a workout on screen as it is on stage.
“The results show that even after more than 400 years, Shakespeare’s work still packs an emotional punch to today’s audiences wherever and however it is experienced,” comments Sarah Ellis, the RSC’s director of digital development.
“This was a great way to continue our work to find new ways for theatre to be experienced, and to help us ensure that live theatre performance remains relevant in the 21st century and beyond.”
Does this mean recorded theatre seen in cinemas and on headsets is the future? The answer from the scientists, apparently, is not yet.
Alongside monitoring heart rates, Ipsos Mori asked every participant a set of questions immediately after the performance. The collated responses make encouraging reading, not only for theatre experienced on screen and via headsets, but also for traditional theatre.
A total of 91% of VR viewers said that at some point during the show they thought they were physically present in the theatre.
Cinema-goers, meanwhile, were more likely to say they found the production moving than theatregoers and headset-wearers. Perhaps this was down to how directorial decisions focused the viewer’s eye on the detail of actors’ expressions – such as the tear rolling down the mutilated Lavinia’s cheek.
These statistics emphasise the potential power of alternative theatre experiences. For a fully immersive experience, turn to VR. To savour the emotional content, get yourself to the cinema. For a more engaging and more shocking experience, though, the survey data suggests live performance is hard to beat.
Participant feedback indicated that, in the theatre, audience members paid more attention to elements of staging, costume, plot, music and choreography, and that they were more likely to say they were startled by the show’s violence. Theatregoers were also more likely to have had a positive, communal experience than cinema-goers. “It felt good to be sharing,” was a far more common response after the live Stratford performance.
The research offers an interesting new perspective on the debate around live theatre and performances broadcast on to the big screen. Cinema screenings and VR experiences have their strengths, and both can set your heart racing, it suggests, but for a truly theatrical experience, you have to buy a ticket.
And don’t worry about those stony-faced critics sat around you during the most harrowing scenes. Underneath, their hearts are pumping like Roger Federer at match point.
Following its Royal Shakespeare Theatre run, Titus Andronicus is at London’s Barbican Theatre from December 7-January 19, 2018