Theatre is a comedy of errors

My wife and I went to see a play recently. It was at a reasonably small, fashionable studio theatre that, the management announced, was making an effort to attract those who don't normally go to the theatre. To do this, it had set aside a quota of cheap tickets for sixth-formers, the unemployed and various other groups whose first thought on drawing up their weekly budget is not necessarily: "I must rush out to see a daring reinterpretation of Three Sisters."

Like all self-respecting liberals, we applauded this initiative. Most agree that plays shouldn't cater exclusively for those who order their tickets from the theatre brochure 18 months in advance, arrive in plenty of time to preorder their interval drinks and laugh in a loud, self-aware manner at the learned jokes that they've been made aware of by broadsheet reviews. Theatres need to attract new blood - not just to avoid elitism, but out of pure pragmatism, because they are competing with entertainments such as The Only Way Is Essex, and we live in a financial climate that makes it ever harder to justify funding a bold, new piece about the shortage of hospital beds rather than, say, new hospital beds. Yes, hats off to the democratisation of theatre.

Unfortunately, the audience was rubbish. People fidgeted and muttered throughout. They ate snacks and rustled the infernally loud, scratchy bags of sweets that even high-minded theatres sell to their patrons. During a monologue in which the actor addressed the audience directly, one person began to respond out loud, seemingly in the belief that the actor had left the play and singled her out for a personal conversation.

And then, inevitably, a mobile phone went off - not once, but twice. The first time, the actor ad-libbed her way elegantly around it; the second time, it spoiled a tense moment and the rest of the audience made a noise of such horrified disapproval that you would have thought the culprit had set a monkey loose in the auditorium. When the lights came up at the end, most audience members divided their attention between clapping and glancing around to see who had ruined their evening.

All of this leaves the forward-thinking arts lover with a bit of a dilemma. Is it such a good idea to make theatre easily accessible to people who don't normally go there, if they then wreck it for other patrons by behaving like people who don't normally go there? Is it fair to open your doors to newcomers and then criticise them for not knowing what they're meant to do? It feels like welcoming someone to your party and then shouting at them for wearing muddy shoes on the carpet. You may be correct but you won't go down as a good citizen.

Who gets to decide what sort of behaviour is appropriate at the theatre, anyway? We think of it as a place where you sit in silence, reverently digesting each word enunciated by the strutting grande dame or the bloke who used to be on Drop the Dead Donkey, depending on your budget. But, as we all learned at school, theatre audiences used to be a ferocious rabble that swarmed around the stage, jeered at the arrival of characters who were evil or French, peed in each other's pockets and set the Globe on fire.

Today, the Globe re-creates something of this atmosphere, even if the shouts of groundlings are sometimes drowned out by shushing from those who have paid good money to enjoy the authentic, Elizabethan scenes from comfortable seats. In Italy, opera-goers will happily boo a tenor who misses a note. You might reply that the Italians also have fistfights in government and an alleged sex addict for a prime minister and we don't want to emulate that (though it might be fun in small doses). Still, it's harder than it first seems to set rules for the way we react to culture.

I'm writing this in the quiet carriage of a train, which is one place where you can depend on being all but executed if you make the mistake of letting your phone go off. Even the tapping of my keys has just elicited a wary look from the man sitting opposite me. Perhaps this kind of segregation is the future for theatres.

In time, they'll start to introduce "quiet rows" near the front, where you can sit to watch the performance, and then more relaxed areas further back for those who prefer to make their own entertainment.

Or maybe rail companies will scrap their quiet carriages and make everything more informal, in the hope of attracting "people who don't normally go on trains". l

Mark Watson is a stand-up comedian and novelist. His most recent book, Crap at the Environment, follows his own efforts to halve his carbon footprint over one year.

This article first appeared in the 27 June 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The food issue