Theatre audiences were historically none too well mannered. At the Globe in Shakespeare’s day, the “groundlings” – standing customers in the aptly named “pit” – were notorious for heckling and throwing rotten fruit, sold to them for this purpose. Modern British theatregoers seem to be reviving that tradition. When my wife, Sue, and I saw Ibsen’s Master Builder at the Old Vic in London recently, our fellow spectators often threatened to eclipse the performance.
The play was a huge hit, in large part thanks to the casting of Ralph Fiennes as the tortured architect Halvard Solness. As with Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet at the Barbican last summer, the atmosphere at this most ancient and beautiful of London playhouses was more suited to rock’n’roll than a bleak Norwegian drama.
We were seated in the middle of a row in the stalls that was already three-quarters full and so had to fight our way to our places through heaps of coats, backpacks and shopping bags. Their owners made no attempt to move them, staring at us with either hostility or pitying contempt. I found myself sitting next to a young woman with a takeaway sandwich and a packet of crisps on her lap. As the last minutes before show time ticked away, she began arranging crisps inside the sandwich like a contestant adding final touches to a dish on MasterChef.
The seat in front of me was empty, affording perfect sightlines that I fully expected to be blotted out by the almost inevitable late-arriving giant. A very tall, broad woman did come stumbling down that row but (phew!) sank into a seat four places to my right. Then, as the lights dimmed, a second very tall woman – now what are the odds of that? – struggled along to plug the precious gap. This one was angular, with lots of floaty hair, pinned up behind, and several layers of jumpers and scarves.
As Act I began, she spent some time apologising to her companion for her lateness and removing some of her jumpers and scarves. I expected that sooner or later she would sit back in her seat, allowing me at least a partial view of the stage. But it transpired that she was using the jumpers and scarves to construct an extra backrest that propped her in a permanent forward posture. I therefore faced the prospect of seeing nothing for the next three hours but the large, black comb pinning up her coiffure.
This was averted by a tap on her shoulder and a grovelling whisper: “I’m terribly sorry to bother you but would you mind . . . ?” However, the new groundlings were only just getting started. To my right, the young woman had begun to eat her crisp sandwich with a sound like Napoleon’s Grande Armée marching up the gravelled drive of Tsar Alexander’s palace. Meanwhile, two rows down to the left, seemingly oblivious of the wonderful acting onstage, a young man in a white T-shirt and his frizzy-haired girlfriend had launched into the kind of heavy petting that used to go on in the back rows of cinemas. They kept it up through both intervals, untrammelled by the raised house lights – quite the opposite.
“They’re almost on the floor now,” reported Sue, who had a better view. The former crisp sandwich eater kept her phone screen illuminated well after the house had darkened again. As she was finally switching it off, she accidentally dropped it into the shopping bag at her feet, where it lit up some newly purchased garments clearly inspired by Camila Batmanghelidjh. She bent down and rummaged around for it, cursing not quite under her breath.
In Act III, the floaty-haired woman in front of me became active again, evidently torn by indecision as to whether she was too cold or too hot. First, she unwound the long scarf from her neck, then she rewound it. A few moments later, she took off her jumper – a lengthy, stage-obscuring process, as it was very small and tight – but then almost immediately began to yank it back on again.
All fidgety hell was breaking loose. The former crisp sandwich eater crossed her legs, inspected her suede-booted left foot, then started wagging it up and down to an inaudible rhythm that lasted until the play’s end. The other tall woman who had almost sat in front of me also intruded on my peripheral vision by repeatedly raising one arm aloft as if in a fascist salute, then raking her blonde hair with her fingers (a gesture meant to convey: “I am a free spirit”).
Much was made in the media of the adoring young women who disrupted Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet. At the Old Vic, the main disturbers of the peace weren’t young but old enough to know better. And Asbo-worthy theatre conduct seems peculiarly British. As Sue reminded me, “The night we saw Hamlet, it was full of young girls from the Far East and China who never made a sound in the whole three hours and didn’t try to take a single selfie.”
Philip Norman’s latest book, “Paul McCartney: the Biography” will be published in May by Weidenfeld & Nicolson
This article appears in the 30 Mar 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The terror trail