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