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Mark Shenton: To take arms against a sea of mobile phones, and by opposing end them

Benedict Cumberbatch in Hamlet at the Barbican Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson Benedict Cumberbatch in Hamlet at the Barbican Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson
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A few years ago, Sam Walters, then artistic director of the Orange Tree Theatre, publicly declared a zero tolerance policy against mobile phones ringing in his theatre, and declared that any offender would be ejected.

I remember mentioning this to Nick Hytner, then running the National, and he declared that, hand on heart, he couldn’t swear that it wouldn’t ever happen to him. Earlier this year, after he left the National, I was at a first night there and he was sitting in the row in front of me. That dire prediction came back to haunt him: his phone rang (and treated us to a ring tone that comprised of Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring).

I’m afraid I can’t afford to be smug either. At the press night of the Benedict Cumberbatch Hamlet, I was telling my companion that night that I couldn’t understand why the production’s announcement declared that airplane mode was not sufficient but phones had to be entirely switched off. I know better, of course – or so I thought – and went for airplane mode. But I didn’t put it on silent, and so – in a key moment early in the play – my phone pinged. (It was an arriving pre-programmed notification, which doesn’t depend on the internet or a phone signal to be received, but is in my diary.)

Another night, at the St James a couple of years ago, Siri – Apple’s voice assistant – started talking to me mid-play when I accidentally activated it in my pocket.

 So now I know why they wanted the phone right off. But those are accidents (waiting to happen, yes, but accidents nonetheless). What about people who deliberately ignore the rules and use their phones anyway – to text, to tweet, to take photographs (or even to take calls – yes, this really does happen)?

That’s where I’m now coming around to Walters’ zero tolerance policy. Only recently Benedict Cumberbatch came out of the stage door to address his fans personally about their use of their phones during his performance of Hamlet: “I want to try to enlist you. I don’t use social media, and I’d really appreciate it if you tweeted, blogged, hashtagged the shit out of this: I can see cameras, I can see red lights, in the auditorium.”

That night, they had to restart the show after, as he put it, “I could see a red light in about the the third row on the right – it’s mortifying and there’s nothing less supportive or enjoyable, an actor being on stage experiencing that. I can’t give you what I want to give you, which is a live performance, rather than on your phones. They’re going to get strict now – people will be detected and evicted. I don’t want that to happen – that’s a horrible way to police what is a wonderful thing.”

Of course the Barbican was the scene of one of the more outrageous scenes of audience photography I’ve ever experienced, when the opening night of Robert Wilson’s production of Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach a few years ago was disrupted by regular flashes going off from the stalls. I was there and (in)famously challenged the perpetrator who was occupying a seat in the middle of the row in front of me after the show.

Channelling my inner Patti LuPone, I roared at her, “Who do you think you are?”

I had no idea who she was (my cultural references beyond the theatre are a bit limited), but it turned out she knew exactly who she was and therefore felt fully entitled to do what she was doing. She was Bianca Jagger. Even Robert Wilson, the director, it turned out knew her well, and tweeted support of her in the ensuing media storm (it made the front page of The Guardian) saying how much he loved his friend Bianca and thanked her for her support of the show. To which I replied, I wondered how he would have felt if a member of the public had disrupted his show in this way?

The friend I took to Hamlet threatened to take photographs throughout the show, saying that if he was challenged he would say, “But you didn’t stop Bianca Jagger”. But just last week I found myself challenging another audience member adjusting  her mobile phone to taking photographs at the tiny Union Theatre, this time sitting directly in front of me, during a performance of their current show, Our House. I was able to lean over and tell her to stop before she began.

She turned around and in a very affronted way told me how it was her kid brother that was in the show, and if I’d wiped his arse as often as she had I’d be able to take pictures. When the interval came she and her party continued sounding off about how outrageous my polite request was. We decided to leave – the evening was ruined, as did another person I spoke to as we all left. But before we did, I told the theatre manager why I was doing so and pointed out the offenders.

Obviously a conversation ensued in which they were told who I was, because a few seconds later she came back to find me and offer abject apologies (and another excuse). Of course she understood theatrical etiquette she said,  and how could she make this up to me? (The added excuse was about a dying relative who couldn’t attend the performance so she wanted to show her a photograph; that would hold up if the show didn’t employ a professional photographer Darren Bell whose pictures are a brilliant record of the show).

On the first night of Bend It Like Beckham in the West End I was seated next to Omid Djalili. As the show started, he was still texting, so I politely told him not to. He said he was dealing with a family emergency; I replied, “In that case, leave”. He didn’t – nor did he use the phone again. It sounds like it was just an excuse.

The truth is that we are losing the battle against mobile phone usage in the theatre when it comes to these levels of entitlement. But now performers, from Cumberbatch to Patti LuPone, are fighting back for themselves – LuPone recently swiped a mobile out of the hands of a woman who was using it mid-performance of an Off-Broadway play she was appearing in earlier this summer, and only returned it after the show. But it shouldn’t be up to actors (or me) to police this stuff.

We need a big public awareness campaign around this. And offenders who actively use their phones – as opposed to those whose phones go off ‘by mistake’ – should simply be evicted from the theatre at the earliest, least disruptive opportunity. The person who went home at the interval at the Union the other night should not have been me. It should have been the family member photographer.

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