Theatre audiences are a poor show

Peter Ackroyd, in his masterful biography of London, animadverts that the entire city is essentially a performance space, one in which the notorious actors fret and strut, while the London mob roils and moils through the streets, providing at once the extras and the audience for an organic production that is ever evolving down the ages. But if this is the case - and I think his analysis has considerable appeal - then what can we say of the audiences in more conventional theatres?

For me, the theatre audience is the main problem with theatre. Sure, a lot of plays are flatly crap, but only the audience for an averagely farcical West End production will force me to leave at the interval, disgustedly shredding my programme.Actors are, as we all know, a pretty mad crowd - but at least there are small chinks in the seriousness with which they take their avocation. Audiences, by contrast, are slaves of a high-minded method to rival Stanislavsky's. Watching them mill about in the lobbies and bars, talking arse while they scoop ice creams and sup G&Ts, it often occurs to me that when all these individuals got up that morning, they were already resolutely in character as middle-class members of a theatre audience.

Titter ye not

If the proletarian mob galvanised political change with its posturing on the barricades, then the theatre audience is its bourgeois counterpart, which, merely by sitting still, extinguishes the revolutionary fire with a well-fed collective derrière. This wasn't always the case. Back in the days when the Globe wasn't a laborious fake, the theatre was indeed coextensive with the street theatre - through the Restoration and up until the heyday of Drury Lane, a trip to the theatre remained a vital part of playing a dynamic social role. But since the Victorian era, the main motivation of the professionals playing the audience has been complacency, pure and simple.

Agitprop, guerrilla theatre, the theatre of the absurd, theatre in the round, the square, the open-fucking-air - so moribund is the British theatre audience that nothing has managed to make it corpse; it remains steely, impervious to distraction. Indeed, arguably the more outrageous the play, the more naked and bemerded the cast, and the more it assaults the audience's cherished ideals, the more content that audience becomes. As the actors on stage prance about waggling their genitals and lobbing handfuls of excrement, so those in the royal circle titter indulgently and
rustle their programmes, for it is by this fact alone - their incapacity to be genuinely shocked - that they can also remain manifestly unmoved.

Keeping up appearances

I appreciate that they often claim to have been transported by this Enron or that Jerusalem. "Oh, it was marvellous," they bleat. "It really made you think." And perhaps it did make them think . . . of booking another ticket so as to have another opportunity to play their own favourite part. True, in recent years, the sluggish audience, like some ageing matinee idol, has attempted some new tricks. During the boom years, infused by more than the usual planeloads of Americans and invigorated by new money, the audience began to applaud spontaneously at the end of acts - and even scenes!

There was also a precipitate increase in the amount of hilarity. Heretofore laughter was frequent and disproportionate, yet almost always had a sufficient cause; now the tittering is continuous from when the curtain rises until it descends. The audience will guffaw at just about anything from Tybalt's death to Krapp's penultimate tape - and how mad is that? But the maddest thing of all remains the audience's inability just to walk away from it. After all, when the play is over, the Equity-minimum actors reach for the baby wipes and annihilate their subterfuge, but the paying audience simply heads out the double doors while stalwartly maintaining it.

It maintains it in cars, it maintains it on public transport - but, by far the most aggressively, it maintains it in restaurants and bars, where it feels liberated to loudly ad-lib lines of staggering banality, such as: "I'll have the calves' liver." While the deranged mob may have been repressed, there remains this other craziness: being compelled against your will to be the audience of an audience.

Next week: Real Meals

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 07 June 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The myth of Mandela

David Young
Show Hide image

The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide