Sunday 23 March 2014

Are Modern Theatre Audiences too Respectful?

Ancient Audiences were inter-active

Twenty years ago I was thrown out of a performance at the English National Opera of an opera by John Buller based on Euripides’ Bacchae. An aesthete sitting in front of us had complained to the bouncers because my escort, no classicist, whispered occasional questions to me, such as ‘Why is Teiresias wearing coconuts?’ The expulsion was poignant because, unbeknownst to the complainant and the bouncer, I had been a consultant on the show. I had only got to sit amongst the most refined opera aficionados, in expensive seats, as a reward for writing the programme essay.

Euripides had to cope with more than tweets
I explained to our accuser that in Euripides’ theatre, the democratic audience (who had not paid ludicrous sums for the right to attend) felt entitled to comment noisily and get bad performers and dramas driven from the stage: really great productions received praise because they had managed, unusually, to spellbind the audience into silence. Unfortunately my line of argument didn’t work and in lieu of the second half I ended up explaining the coconuts in the pub.

Fast-forward two decades to an almost empty theatre at a production of the disastrous musical Stephen Ward, imminently closing, about the Profumo affair. I bought myself a ticket because my children’s great-grandfather (on their father’s side, I hasten to reassure you) was Percy Murray, the owner of the sleazy nightclub at which the main players (Keeler, Ward etc) met one another. Much of Act I is set in this legendary knocking shop, and my children’s great-grand-dad even gets to sing! What an honour! To have a role written for my in-laws by Andrew Lloyd Webber himself!

Advert for my grandpa-in-law's infamous nightclub
Sitting at least five seats from anyone else, dazed by the awfulness of the show, I made my reactions available to my tiny Twitter following. The next day I received in response a stream of outraged tweets from one of the actors, who found it astonishing that I should think it okay to sabotage the creation of Art by tweeting at a live performance. His grounds were that it was bad manners, could disturb other spectators (possibly, but nobody was sitting near me) and was disrespectful to the actors. 

Murray's club, rather cleaned up, in Lloyd Webber's Show
How, exactly? I have learned to ignore all the students who live tweet my lectures, regardless of whether their views are positive or critical. That is their right. Now that Higher Education is a commercial transaction, they are paying vast fees, as we all have to pay small fortunes to attend London musicals. Call me a boorish groundling if you will, but shouldn’t the performers of both lectures and musicals, selling their products, have to earn their customers’ respect?  I would be interested to hear your opinion.
My sister-in-law's signed copy of Keeler memoir: 'It was wonderful working for your Grandfather--it was a great show'

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