More than ten years ago, watching Ralph Fiennes as Richard II at the Gainsborough studios, we were astonished to find that near the end of the play, as Fiennes makes his touching final soliloquy, some of the audience members in our row were getting ready to depart, taking a number of rustling plastic bags with them. How annoyed were we? Pretty annoyed. But not as annoyed as when the director of the play was who behind us proceeded to berate these early leavers in a loud whisper in the open doorway. We desperately tried to recapture the mood of the tragic boy-King, but alas even the dulcet tones of Ralph Fiennes couldn’t overcome that disruption. Whilst we can sympathise with a director feeling offended that audience members might wish to depart before the three hour plus running time is up, it was his behaviour which ultimately showed little respect for the audience who had stayed. What he was trying to achieve was anyone’s guess. Ironically though, if the Daily Mirror are to be believed, Fiennes would have approved, since he is prone to on-stage tantrums himself.
And now Kevin Spacey has become the latest in a long line of actors praised to the skies for embarrassing members of the audience who allow their mobile phones to ring. Apparently he does this ‘in character’, pulling a laser pen from his jacket and pointing it at the victim in question. We hope he has checked the strength of the laser – they can be classed as weapons in Australia. We would question whether this is characteristic of Richard III – wouldn’t he just note the seat positions and see to it that the offending audience members were quietly dispatched in the interval? However, it does seem that actors who make a feature of breaking the fourth wall to challenge bad mobile phone manners are growing in popularity – the reporting from Australia seems to suggest that Spacey’s ‘humorous’ interventions went down better than his actual performance as Richard III. Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig are also notable recent examples, but Richard Griffiths was berating audiences over it back in 2005.
Most London theatres have regular disturbances from various sources – sirens and rumbling trains are a common occurrence. But we’ve yet to hear of an actor shouting ‘For f**ck’s sake, whose on fire now?’ There are countless examples of actors receiving praise for rising above all sorts of mishaps, whether injury or illness, or technical difficulties, and rarely do they attempt to make a drama out of a crisis. Our prize goes to Darius Campbell when he had to mime a scene with his daughter as Rhett Butler in Trevor Nunn’s musical ‘Gone with the Wind’. So convincing was he that only later did we realise that there was meant to be a child actress playing the little girl, but she had to go home because the show had run on so late. Simon Callow tells an incredible story from the pre-mobile 1970s of Michael Redgrave being interrupted by a woman plugging her hairdryer into a socket on stage.
So what is it about mobile phones that causes actors to blow their tops so regularly? It can only be because they think there is someone on hand to blame. But one does have to ask how these outbursts actually help. According to Guy Winch in his recent book ‘The Squeaky Wheel: the right way to complain’, if you have a grievance, you can choose to vent your anger, or you can solve the problem, but very rarely can you do both. Moreover, the endless reporting of these outbursts make them seem more normal, and gives the impression that everyone leaves their phone on, whereas it is highly likely to be a small minority of audience members, and often by accident rather than design. As Jackman had to confess in an interview about his outburst, one of his ‘victims’ turned out to be an elderly lady looking for her seat.
Meanwhile, the reporting seems to whip up an inordinate amount of public hysteria. According to Hugh Jackman, people who don’t deal with their ringing phones are pretending the phone isn’t theirs. Hardly surprising, since the embarrassment of being found out has been racked up to such a degree. So all credit to David Lan, Artistic Director of the Young Vic, for admitting that he himself has been guilty of forgetting to turn off his mobile phone in the theatre….twice!
There must be better ways to encourage audiences to switch off phones – if the objection is that they are distracting, how does the greater distraction of an actor coming out of character help? For one thing it punishes the vast majority of the audience who have paid to be there, some of whom may not even have heard the original disturbance. It is as though the mobile phone crime has ruined the play already, and all bets are off.
To paraphrase Arthur Miller in his play ‘Broken Glass’, everyone is persecuted, but nobody turns out to be the persecutor. We haven’t seen any serious efforts in London theatres to deal with this problem.
So, here are our suggestions:
* Have some exclusive ringtones for theatre-goers to download – they could imitate normal London theatre sounds – sirens, rumbling trains, coughing. Or, for period dramas, horses hooves, harpsichords and chamber pots being emptied.
* Research shows that people are more likely to do something if they agree to it verbally – the ticket checker could routinely ask people if they intend to turn off their phones and if they answer in the affirmative they are more likely to do so.
* The best way to get people to comply is to keep reminding them that most people do comply.
* Ask whether people know how to turn their phone off? Perhaps a personal tutorial from Mr Spacey would help. After all as the proud owner of a laser pen, he is well placed to give a brief pre-show lecture.