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Stop clap-shaming first-time theatregoers who like Martin Freeman from off the telly

So-called “seasoned theatregoers” have complained about the audience clapping during Martin Freeman’s West End appearance as Richard III, in what is nothing more than a display of blatant snobbery.

Martin Freeman as Richard III. Photo: Marc Brenner

Martin Freeman as Richard III.
Photo: Marc Brenner

Martin Freeman has just started his three-month run as Shakespeare’s Richard III on the West End. So new is the show that the reviews for what happens on the stage aren’t even in yet, although the verdict on the audience has already been pronounced. “Martin Freeman fans ‘ruin’ Richard III”, says the Telegraph, while the Mail wonders: “Are overexcited Hobbit fans ruining Martin Freeman’s Richard III for Shakespeare purists?”. The crime? Clapping and cheering during Freeman’s first scene, in a flagrant breach of “theatre etiquette”.

All the reports quote theatre blogger Claire Dikecoglu, who at the bottom of her review of the production defended her decision not to participate in a standing ovation, saying that she felt “irritated at the audience when one or two interrupted the flow of the play early on to clap and cheer after Martin’s first scene”. It’s her personal opinion – she was the one actually in the audience, after all – but that one line has been appropriated to bolster the argument that “real” or “seasoned” theatregoers are having their experience ruined by young upstarts who don’t know the rules, and that this is a terrible travesty. It’s clap-shaming, pure and simple – trying to make people feel bad and unwelcome for expressing their enthusiasm at a performance that they have paid to see, just like anybody else – and it has to stop.

Let’s look at this notion of “theatre etiquette”. There is no such thing: there’s no Debrett’s for theatregoers. The idea that theatre is best enjoyed in total darkness and absolute silence is a relatively recent one – back when Richard III was first performed, Shakespeare’s audiences heckled the actors and one another, had fights, consumed food and drink, and generally had a rowdy good time. Even in the late nineteenth century, when plays by Oscar Wilde were being premiered in London, opening nights in particular were where society luminaries came to exchange gossip and elicit scandal, and where the hoi polloi came to laugh uproariously in the pit. Wilde even showed appreciation for his vocal audience in a speech after the first night of Lady Windermere’s Fan, saying:

I congratulate you on the great success of your performance, which persuades me that you think almost as highly of the play as I do myself.”

Today, at a time when wages are squeezed and most people aren’t feeling particularly flush, theatre audiences are still growing. Attendance figures (pdf) for the main London theatres in 2013 were up by 4 per cent on the previous year. The Society of London Theatre, which compiles the data, attributed this in part to the number of big names who appeared on the West End last year:

The star-studded Michael Grandage Company Season pulled in the crowds at the Noël Coward, Helen Mirren proved a big draw playing the Queen in The Audience at the Gielgud, and Adrian Lester’s Othello vied with Rory Kinnear’s Iago in front of packed houses at the National Theatre.”

It’s a very simple strategy: if you can cast someone with a pre-existing fanbase from film or TV work in a play, the potential audience for your play increases. We see this over and over again nowadays, particularly with Shakespeare. As my colleague Helen Lewis noted last year, “doing a Shakespeare” has become something of a rite of passage for a certain type of male actor:

This new “golden age” of Shakespeare is also a golden age of thirty­something and early fortysomething actors “doing a hero” alongside their more commercial work, in a kind of mid-career seriousness test.

Last year we had David Tennant as Richard II, Jude Law as Henry V, and Tom Hiddleston as Coriolanus. Now it’s the turn of the Sherlock boys: Freeman is currently Richard III, and next year those of us lucky enough to score tickets will be treated to Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet. It’s part of a mutually beneficial arrangement: the actors get to remind us that they are serious thesps, and the producers get big audiences, some of whom are already pre-disposed to adore whatever their hero does.

For better or worse, it’s a brilliantly successful model. And as well as funding productions, it’s helping theatres to appeal to those who wouldn’t otherwise be bothered by yet another production of Henry V: young people. Ticketmaster’s annual “State of Play” report (pdf) found that the 16-19 age group are more likely to attend the theatre than any other group, although people 25-44 still make up the majority of audiences. If, as I strongly suspect, what is meant by “theatre etiquette” is actually “what we, the rich people who can afford to go to the theatre regularly, have always done”, then that’s changing too. Dressing casually is now considered acceptable by a majority of theatregoers, and a substantial portion of those surveyed admitted to whispering, “laughing when not intended” and checking their phones. All of this is good – people are having fun and providing more money to spend on exciting productions. As playwright and screenwriter Christopher Hampton told the Evening Standard:

Attracting first-time theatregoers is the holy grail as far as we are all concerned. We want them to come as much as possible.

“I am all for people having a good time in the theatre and if they want to express themselves like that, I don’t see any harm in it.”

The biggest barrier to going to the theatre is still the cost. To become a “seasoned theatregoer”, of the kind who object to the cheering and clapping, you have to be well-off, because going to the theatre regularly enough to learn its “etiquette” is a luxury that not everyone can afford. Making people feel bad for their enforced inexperience is a way of saying that you don’t think they should be there at all. It’s a way of resisting the democratisation of culture, of saying that “this is only for people like me – young, fidgety people like you aren’t welcome here”. It’s snobbery, pure and simple: assuming that someone who likes Martin Freeman for his performances as Bilbo Baggins and John Watson couldn’t possibly also appreciate his Richard III.

Of course, when we pay for tickets to see a play, it’s because we want to see it and, ideally, hear it too. Practical considerations, like silencing mobile phones and abstaining from loud arguments with family members mid-soliloquy, are there for this very good reason. This is precisely why theatres and venues provide friendly reminders before the curtain goes up. Too often, though, it’s other audience members who take it too far: a friend of mine reported an angry altercation at last year’s Proms, where he was loudly reprimanded by someone a few seats along for silently looking up something about the concert on his smartphone 20 minutes before the performance was due to start. At that point, it’s not a matter of consideration anymore – it’s become a way of policing who should and shouldn’t be allowed in the audience at all.

 

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Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

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"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge