Epic attention spans

Flora Spencer-Longhurst (Lavinia) and William Houston (Titus) in Titus Andronicus at Shakespeare's Globe. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Honour Bayes is a freelance arts journalist who has written extensively for The Stage and had work published in the Guardian, Independent, Time Out, Exeunt Magazine and The Church Times. She is currently Associate Editor on Chinese arts magazine ArtZip and has worked as web editor for the Royal College of Art, managing its arts and design coverage.
by -

'How long is it?'. This is the first question friends ask when I invite them to see a show with me. It's an important issue because the answer often effects whether they come or not. Three hours takes up an entire evening. One hour can be book-ended with a catch up. Three hours of bad theatre can feel like three years. One hour... well you get the drift.

Frustratingly this information is often not on theatre websites. This has always struck me as strange. Why not include the running time of the show along with all the other standard information? Films do and they're usually within the same ball park anyway (after many years of big screen experience I'd suggest this is two hours thirty minutes).

Are theatres worried about putting buying members of the public off? As attention spans diminish audiences are increasingly looking for short bursts of entertainment. "Every play should be one hour long," is a phrase I often hear (and not just because I sometimes say it).

On the fringe issues such as money and rehearsal time often result in compact, sharp productions - except for the perennial Shakespearean revivals of course. Much can be communicated in sixty minutes and, as I admit above, I'm a fan of this potent format. But this week I also saw two pieces that ran to nearly three hours each and they not only challenged and thrilled me, they renewed my faith in theatre.

Melodramatic? Perhaps. But I'm not afraid to admit I'd become rather down in the mouth about our beloved art form after a pretty long run of bad or mediocre shows. So thank god for The Globe's Titus Andronicus and King Charles III at the revitalised Almeida.

Lucy Bailey's spectacular production of Titus Andronicus tears through Shakespeare's epic. It engages it's audience with such blood thirsty panache that the running time of two hours forty minutes feels far too short. Meanwhile Mike Bartlett's new future play King Charles III more than matches the Olivier award-winning Chimerica in quality and ambition. This thought provoking – and entertaining – theatrical feast runs at two hours forty five minutes (information that is included on their website) – a lordly length for a lordly subject.

The Globe and Almeida are not fringe theatres of course but Theatre 503 definitely is. Last September saw this intimate venue premier Chris Urch's meaty debut Land of Our Fathers. At over two hours and thirty minutes this engrossing play more than answered the question 'Where are all the big plays?' and it did so on the fringe.

These pieces feel (and felt) like events – their lengthy running times add a sense of occasion. They are ambitious and compel focus. So for the next three hour show I review on the fringe or Off West End I'm going to insist my friend comes along. After all if it's terrible they can always leave in the interval and who knows it might not be just good, but great.