Monday 11 December 2017

Emer O'Kelly: Something is rotten with the state of theatre-goers' manners

Cumberbatch may be bursting out of his ego by berating theatre-goers, but he also had a point, says Emer O'Kelly

Benedict Cumberbatch
Benedict Cumberbatch

Emer O'Kelly

Any theatre-goer worth his or her salt would have applauded (and probably did applaud) Benedict Cumberbatch for his outburst outside the Barbican in London last weekend. That is, unless they were in London, walked down to the stage door and found themselves confronted by a large notice which read "Mr Cumberbatch will not be signing autographs before or after the performance." Get him, dear, do I hear you say?

Before playing the role of Sherlock Holmes on television for four years (when already in his mid-30s) he would probably have sold himself, body and soul, to play Hamlet at the Barbican. And he'd have been beating his chest with pleasure if asked even once for his autograph.

His outburst was about people who used their mobile phones to catch a shot of his performance as Hamlet. He called it "mortifying." And although he said he didn't "really do social media," he asked his adoring fan base to "tweet, blog, hashtag the shit out of this one for me." Because, he pointed out, "there's nothing less supportive than seeing camera lights" in the audience. The poor lambkin and his poor little bruised ego!

Actually, I agree entirely in principle. Actors and musicians are not robots or recorded images on a screen: they're live and real and they're working to give of their best. They deserve to be treated with a modicum of good manners.

But Michael Colgan of Dublin's Gate Theatre, always one to leap into the breach with an observation on anyone or anything in the theatre in Ireland or worldwide, said on RTE last Monday that "Benedict" should have expected it: this was the Barbican, and the audience had come to see him, not the play, or indeed any play. Dead right; although a bit of an insult to the Barbican, where the majority of audiences do go to see a play rather than a TV or movie star.

But with an ego such as Cumberbatch seems to display, he possibly thinks that he is a lot more important than a mere playwright who's dominated the world for more than 300 years.

Such shenanigans wouldn't happen at the Gate, which has a "theatre-going audience," according to Michael Colgan. But it was in the Gate that a very fine actor, who is also not unknown in the movie world, one Ralph Fiennes, was appearing in Brian Friel's Faith Healer a few years ago in the role created by the late Donal McCann. When a mobile phone rang loud and long, Fiennes stepped out of his shambling character, moved forward to glare into the auditorium and snarled with resonant intensity: "Turn that f*****g thing off!"

During the Dublin Theatre Festival a few years ago, the grande dame of British theatre (and co-incidentally Liam Neeson's mother-in-law) Vanessa Redgrave, was appearing in a much-lauded one-woman adaptation of the now 85-year-old Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking. The book and the play are a devastating account of the deaths in the same year of Didion's husband and her only daughter.

Redgrave, her beautiful arms seeming to float through the air, was describing an evening by a lakeside as Didion went through the grieving process in the company of friends. It went roughly: "We felt the breeze, we watched the fireflies in the balmy air, we sank into the stillness, we turned off our cell phones." Her arms remained outstretched, her fluidity went static. She had become vengeful, tempered steel: it was both electrifying and hilarious. No f***s, though.

But it was a first night and actors, with justification, loathe and detest both first-night audiences and "corporate entertainment" audiences. They regard them, without exception, as insensitive philistines there to be seen, to chatter, and to strut their stuff without the remotest interest in what is going on on stage. And they sum them up as being there "for the interval and the frocks". For anyone genuinely interested in theatre, it's hard to disagree. I even know a certain self-styled "socialite" who professes to be a patron of the arts but who says: "In my position I can't possibly be seen at anything other than a first night".

The people who do buy theatre tickets, rather than sponging on freebies, got sympathetic inclusion from Dame Helen Mirren on an evening in May 2013. A band of drummers, capering through Soho to advertise gay music festival As One in the Park, were dumbfounded to be confronted by a termagant with tightly-curled silver hair and dressed in twin-set and pearls. It was Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II. Except it wasn't. It was Dame Helen, stomping and enraged outside the Gielgud Theatre where she was appearing as HM. in a play called The Audience. She'd been on stage, apparently reacting to being told that for budgetary reasons, the Royal Yacht Britannia had to go, when the jolly drumming had got too much for her, and apparently for the audience who couldn't hear a word of her beautifully modulated voice. Storming into the street she bellowed: "Shut the f**k up. People have paid a f******g hundred pounds to go to the theatre and you are f******g it up."

Somehow, the drummers then guessed it wasn't the Queen. "They were very sweet and stopped," Dame Helen said afterwards. I bet they did!

And I recall another night of fireflies, this time in an auditorium. It was at the opening night of the Druid production in Galway of Eugene O'Neill's A Long Day's Journey into Night. It's one of the masterpieces of 20th-Century American drama, and it's relentlessly harrowing. It's also four and a half hours long. The first-night intelligentsia of Galway had clearly not expected this, and from about 10.15pm onwards there was an increasing display of winking lights as withdrawal symptoms set in and comfort was sought by communication with the outside world. Within 10 minutes it was fairyland, accompanied by a hum of sotto voce conversations.

One in front of me (at least the end I heard) ran: "No, I haven't laughed yet; but I will when she dies." Another behind me ran: "What's Garry [Druid Artistic Director Garry Hynes] doing rubbish like this for?"

But interruptions can take many forms. A number of years ago, the world-famous James Galway was playing a recital in the library of the RDS in Dublin, which was doubling as a concert hall. The chairs had been arranged with a centre aisle. The hall was packed. About 15 minutes in, with Sir James's flute soaring effortlessly and ecstatically, the door was flung open, hitting a bookcase with a resounding thump.

Up the centre aisle, heels clacking deafeningly on the polished wood floor, strode the late Aine O'Connor, (all beautiful six feet of her), then an RTE presenter and girlfriend of a then little-known actor called Gabriel Byrne. Beaming, she made her way to the front and into her (presumably reserved) seat. Sir James fell silent, his flute slung across his shoulder. When she sat down he gazed enquiringly at her. "Good evening. Are you quite comfortable, or would you like me to wait a bit?" he asked. She stood up and swept him a bow.

Later, he was kind enough to mingle with some of the audience, and I was lucky enough to get to talk to him. "Tell me," he asked, "do you know that woman?" I admitted I did. "Is she an exhibitionist, or just thick?"

It all depends where you're coming from, you see.

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