The last few times I have been to the theatre an unsettling
feeling has tailed me home, one that has nothing to do with the
performance itself. It is the niggling memory of a faceless snort,
laugh or guffaw splicing through a scene that is anything but
comic. Who are these trolls lurking in the audience? And when did
it become ok to express glee at death, rape and abuse just because
they are portrayed on stage?
Alarmingly, it is during scenes where a woman is verbally or
physically attacked that I have been distracted by the lone or
collective call of the anonymous chuckler. At a recent performance
of Boho Strauss' Big and Small at the Barbican (pictured)
I was disturbed by the audience's reaction to the drama onstage.
One scene involved the heroine Lotta being dragged to the floor and
slapped repeatedly by her unfaithful lover. It got a snigger from
the man sitting next to me. Yes, until that point the play had been
a tad slapsticky, a little lets all laugh at how childish she is!
But squint all you like; domestic violence will never resemble
slipping on a banana skin. Later on a male employer, frustrated
with her incompetence, hits Lotta with a stick. Lo! A titter rises
from the crowd.
I guess I'm confused as to how a supposedly 'civilised' group of
card-carrying theatregoers get reduced to sniggering at a slapped
woman. Now, an individual's cultural interests do not dictate
whether they will or will not find Cate Blanchett getting hit on
the head with a stick funny. I think it's far more likely that the
mob rule of an audience enables it to happen. The Internet troll
will spend his time graffiti-ing the Internet with obscene posts
but cower with shyness in real life. The audience is the perfect
place to hide for the casual misogynist.
Of course these laughs may not be offensive at all, they could
really be the displaced gasps of the uncomfortable? Is it
theproximityto something awful that causes the eruption of nervous
laughter? Theatre isn't film; there is a certain pressure on the
audience to do their job, to play their part. There's a subtle
awareness that a phone ringing, a late entrance or a muffled giggle
might affect the show. So during a sensitive scene, we may be
telling ourselves 'Don't laugh!' over and over and invariably do,
not because we are desensitised but because we know we
Hmmm, but somehow this still doesn't wash, the chuckles always
sound a bit too authentic. At a recent interpretation of 'A Winters
Tale' the audience was practically rolling in the stalls. I was
baffled at how Shakepeares' story of a woman imprisoned and
betrayed by her own husband, forbidden to see her own children and
branded a whore could get this sort of reaction.
The thing about theatre is that it's so obviously fake; we can
see the sets change; the curtain fall and the lights switch on.
It's a safe environment because it's not actually happening. In
some ways film can be almost too realistic with all its red raw
violence and CGI trickery. There is rarely any sort of audience
interaction in the cinema (if you discount the rather pathetic
applause I witnessed after Prometheus recently) because you'd be
emoting at a screen. We go to the theatre to laugh and cry, perhaps
people feel short changed if they cant.
What remains worrying though is the emergence of an audience
that feels its ok to normalise something that should never be
funny, off stage or on.