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Escaping rude theatregoers – is TV the answer?

Gemma Arterton in The Duchess Of Malfi at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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I have seen two productions in the last week that have been marred somewhat by rude audience members.

The first was Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be at the Theatre Royal Stratford East – where a woman’s phone went off three times – three separate times! – in the second half. The second was when I went to see Let the Right One In, at the Apollo in the West End, where I was the victim of heightism. That’s right people – heightism.

I’m 6’5”. That’s pretty tall. But I have seen taller people. And there’s not much I can do about my own height. I was, to quote a Lady Gaga song, born this way. So to the woman behind me at the Apollo who loudly exclaimed that I had basically ruined her evening by sitting in front of her: tough. What did she want me to do? Kneel on the floor? Cut my legs off? Surely it would have been easier if she’d just brought a booster seat with her.

[pullquote] As I watched from the comfort of my own living room, I didn’t have to worry about anyone behind me – or noisy audience members. It was bliss[/pullquote]

I understand how frustrating it must have been for her. I just don’t understand why she had to be so vocal about it. While I may have a good view at the theatre, I have to endure things too – such as cramped seats, which often require me to hike my legs up around my ears. I never moan about it, because the experience of going to the theatre more than makes up for it – and, let’s be honest, I can handle it for two hours or so.

I – along with fellow well-behaved theatregoers – also have to endure people whose phones go off or who talk through parts of a show (which is exactly what happened at Fings). And those are things people can – and should – control. But my height, as I’ve said, is something I can’t.

Both of my experiences this week made me very grateful for the BBC4 screening of The Duchess of Malfi, recorded at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse earlier this year, starring Gemma Arterton. As I watched from the comfort of my own living room, I didn’t have to worry about anyone behind me – or noisy audience members. It was bliss.

But, while I enjoyed it, if I am being completely honest, it didn’t come close to the experience of going to the theatre itself. I felt strangely detached from it all – and I am sure the candlelit environment of the theatre space wasn’t captured on film.

Despite this, I hoped afterwards that anyone who had never seen the play before, or visited Shakespeare’s Globe, or indeed theatre in general, would have felt encouraged to do so now.

I was therefore fascinated this week to see research, as reported in The Stage, about people who attend opera screenings at cinemas. It found that around 85% of audiences that attend live screenings of opera do not feel more compelled to see the art form live afterwards. After seeing an opera at the cinema, around 75% of participants reported feeling no different about attending a live production, with around 10% feeling less motivated.

This isn’t particularly encouraging, is it? I understand that similar research is being planned around NT Live screenings, and I would be keen to know what the results are for that. It would be nice to think that cinema screenings of plays – or broadcasts on TV – would help to boost attendances at the theatre. But perhaps they don’t. Worse – perhaps they put people off? I sincerely hope not.

Personally I will always welcome the opportunity to do both – see a play in the theatre or watch it on screen. But for me nothing will replace the experience of seeing something live. And if you do find yourself sitting behind me in the theatre, I apologise now. But please keep your comments to yourself.

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