Theatres as Cinemas?

Judging from recent experience, I think we all need a quick lesson in the difference between going to the theatre and the cinema. Yes, both tend to be wildly overpriced, involve sitting scrunched up like a yoga bunny because of the less than generous legroom, and provoke endless soul-searching about how badly you need to push past everyone in your row in order to make it to the toilet in time. But please dear theatregoers, be assured that this is where the similarities end!

I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but in the cinema the actors are contained behind a large shiny screen. It’s perfectly humane, just think of it like a zoo, a magical realm that blocks out the inane wittering and slack-jawed munching of the cretinous audience. The up-shot of this is that you can jabber away at your friends and consume a ton of popcorn without impacting on the actual performances that everyone else has paid to enjoy. Of course, the people around you will continue to tut and glare at you, but what do they matter. Throw popcorn at them and be done with it!

However, at some vague point in history some tree-hugging hippies started a campaign to liberate actors from their unnatural prison and allow them to wander free in their natural habitat – the stage. It’s a beautiful thing, but unfortunately it has its drawbacks. Suddenly the actors had to worry about predators: making their voices heard and ignoring the inane wittering and slack-jawed munching of the cretinous audience (spot a pattern emerging?). For without the protection of the screen, actors are fully able to hear every cough, whisper and crunch in the stalls, and that can wreak havoc on their delicate mental state.

Often this interactive nature between audience and actor is one of the delights of the theatre that can never be replicated in the cinema. A well-timed response to the audience’s laugh can lift a comic performance, while an experienced actor will not allow unexpected interruptions to affect their performance. Yet sometimes the timing and volume of these interruptions truly beggars belief, and apparently for some audience members it is not blindingly obvious that in a theatre the actors can hear things around them. Perhaps, to give people the benefit of the doubt, they are so absorbed in the play that they forget the actors are mere meters away. But still, is it really necessary to comment on the projection of the actor’s spittle, or (and I’m not making this up – guess which play!) say that the leading lady ‘looks like a chipmunk’?

I have racked my brains to try and come up with a list of things that are so vitally important that they have to be said to your companion there and then in the middle of a performance. The list is as follows: ‘I think I am about to die’. All other observations or opinions really can wait until the end. By all means go outside to faint, empty your bladder or talk to the steward about your new puppy, but for the love of all things good, when the actors are on stage, kindly pipe down.

Next week: for those of us for whom keeping schtum in the theatre is too much of a challenge, I explore NT Live, which is reclaiming the cinema for the theatre-lover and putting performers back in their celluloid prison, so that those so inclined can rabbit on while watching leading productions without ever waking the actors. Sweet relief!