On The Stage website today, producer Richard Jordan complains about audiences he encountered on a trip to see Doctor Faustus at the Duke of York’s Theatre.  They were eating McDonalds during the show and Jordan asks whether ‘this is the worst West End audience ever?’.
His response is part of a troubling trend of ‘audience shaming’ that does nothing at all to edify our industry. It seems like every other month there’s a new scheme to police the conduct of theatregoers – from the Theatre Charter  to #Cumberphone. Not only does this line of discourse do little to change behaviour, it might well serve to alienate the new audiences that are so crucial to the continuing vitality of the art form.
While one bad experience of McNugget-munching does not an epidemic make (and I’m really not convinced the situation is as bad as the hysteria of theatre-ati might have you believe), if this is a signifier of auditoriums full of ‘first-time theatregoers drawn to classical theatre and new writing because of star casting’, perhaps it is, in fact, a heartening sign of the health of our industry.
Indeed, Doctor Faustus director Jamie Lloyd is making the creation of accessible, star-led takes on classics his stock in trade. He has spoken about his desire to ‘introduce theatre to a whole other group of people, people who have literally not seen a play eve r’, and his hope that audiences drawn in by James McAvoy or Hayley Atwell might be encouraged to return to the theatre and try something else. If you’re the kind of theatregoer who is in the position to draw comparisons between this production of Dr Faustus and the one you saw last week at the Royal Shakespeare Company, it may be that you’re not the target audience.
This isn’t to make the case that getting a gripping denouement disrupted by the blink of your neighbour’s Whatsapp or the hiss of a freshly opened can of Coke isn’t pretty disappointing for most. But the fear of not knowing how to behave at the theatre is a genuine barrier to entry. Rather than stigmatising behaviour further, one way of encouraging audiences not to eat during shows (as Jordan points out) is simply to have a cast member ask them, graciously, not to.
There is an irony about the conservatism of theatre professionals decrying audiences being too noisy. As culture evolves, so do the ways in which people interact with it. What would the Theatre Charter clan have made of audiences at the first ever production of Doctor Faustus by The Admiral’s Men? They’d probably have been complaining about people nibbling nuts or ‘pippin-pelting’ too loudly.
I’m being glib, but it’s a pertinent point. Theatre, at its best, is a model for democratic space: a place to encounter big ideas together, to negotiate our differences humanely. I suspect the theatre of Marlowe’s day understood that better than we do. The political climate of the last few weeks has underlined the need for greater tolerance and mutual understanding between people of all backgrounds. Our art form could be a better context for this to happen than anywhere. Let’s begin with the way we talk about audiences.