I really enjoyed Inua Ellams’ new version of Three Sisters at the National Theatre. It relocates the play to Biafra during the civil war that divided Nigeria in the late 1960s. A bonus was the diverse audience, who were deliciously vocal in their like and dislike of particular characters and the choices they make. When something tickled them, this audience laughed uproariously. For years we have been told Chekhov is funny, but Ellams, who describes his version as “after Chekhov”, made me believe it.
In his less-than-enthusiastic review the Times’ new lead critic, Clive Davis, described the audience as being almost another character. Why shouldn’t they be? One of my all-time best theatre experiences was at London’s Bush Theatre years ago in Franz Xaver Kroet play The Nest. The husband had poisoned the lake with toxic waste for a cash-in-hand scam. The following scene saw his unknowing wife and child take a dip in the lake and the terrible silence as they took a step towards the water was cut by a woman in the audience shouting: “No”. She broke the rules, but she didn’t break the play: in fact, it was all the more moving because she had been unable to stop herself crying out.
There are many ways to try to recalibrate the traditional dynamic between performers and audiences and there is a great deal of theatre around trying hard to do just that – with varying levels of success. These range from immersive experiences such as The Great Gatsby to shows that place the audience in and around the action – and acknowledge their presence – which Kneehigh does in its singalong Ubu! currently at the Marble Factory in Bristol. Without our presence, Ubu! cannot exist. We are essential. One of the joys of Oily Cart’s All Wrapped Up, which comes to the Gulbenkian in Canterbury later this week, is that it gives its young audience permission to invade the space.
The relationship between performers and audiences is trickier to shift in more traditional theatre spaces. Most theatre doesn’t keep the fourth wall intact, it hides behind it as if seeking safety. But if theatre is committed to change then it must change its relationship with the audience too. Inevitably as soon as you change the stories you tell, the way you tell them and who tells them, you inevitably start to change the audience too.
As RashDash pondered in its own iconoclastic version of Three Sisters, a play written by a long-dead white man about three privileged women moaning that they can’t get back to their beloved Moscow, such as work may have classic status and be familiar to a traditional theatregoing audience (the ones identified by the Warwick Commission’s 2015 report Enriching Britain: Culture, Creativity and Growth) but it may not have appeal or relevance to a wider demographic.
However, a version of the play that honours the original but is not in thrall to it, one that relocates the action and changes the stakes for the characters, just might. Ellams’ version, directed by Nadia Fall and performed by a cracking cast, does just that. And what happens? Suddenly the audience starts to reflect the demographic of the city in which the National Theatre is situated.
And beyond that, the audience didn’t feel bound by the unwritten rules that those of us long-term theatregoers have inhaled and accepted. Ellams’ Three Sisters is not greeted with the hushed awe that too often accompanies revivals of classic plays – instead it is received as if it is fully alive, urgent and necessary. We are in a theatre, not at a funeral where the corpse is on display and taken reverently around the stage by the director and actors.
As a result, the atmosphere is a hell of a lot livelier. If theatre is going to put diverse stories on its stages then it is going to have to embrace this new and potentially invigorating audience it brings in. This is necessary because the National Theatre, along with most of our theatres, remains a predominantly white structure. We cannot claim we want to widen access if the price is that new audiences must conform to a mode of behaviour that has become imposed and accepted over the past 200 years.
As Kirsty Sedgman makes clear in her excellent book The Reasonable Audience: Theatre Etiquette, Behaviour Policing and the Live Performance Experience, it is only in the past two centuries that audiences have started to treat theatres like sacred spaces in which everyone must talk in whispers.
Just as the Battersea Arts Centre’s decision to make all performances relaxed-only opens its doors to those who might otherwise feel excluded, it also heightens the sense of theatre being a genuinely live event. The same applies to the diverse audience at Three Sisters – it didn’t break the play, it enhanced it. New audiences raise theatre from the dead and breathe new life into it.
Lyn Gardner is associate editor of The Stage. Read her latest column every Monday at: thestage.co.uk/columns/gardner