Keeping audiences sweet, not sour

It’s been a week of extremes and contrasts in the world of theatre. On the one hand we have had media punters complaining that audiences are too keen to rise to their feet and give standing ovations while on the other commentators have been divided over whether it is acceptable to boo at the opera.

As always in this life it seems that you can never get it right.

The most fuss has surrounded the Royal Opera’s Rusalka, a controversial production set in a brothel inhabited by a witch, a water nymph and a giant tomcat – or so it would seem.

The rather gaudy production had audiences on their feet on the opening night and rather than showering the cats with cheers, bouquets and frenetic applause, hurled boos and cat calls at the stage ending the evening on a somewhat sour and rather sombre note.

I haven’t seen the production – only read the fairly damning reviews – so I have no first hand knowledge about whether the production deserved such a hostile reception but the question that is ringing around my brain is: “Does any production deserve to be booed?”

It’s a difficult one because as a paying customer, the audience is the final arbiter on whether an artistic venture has been a success or not. Part of me reasons that if they have paid a goodly sum of money and have been bored rigid then they deserve to make their feelings known.

But, then where do you draw the line? Can you boo if a production has been mildly disappointing? If not when does a mild disappointment become an outrageous waste of time and money?

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Also from the performers’ and directors’ point of view, no-one sets out to make a tedious evening in the theatre and we shouldn’t be encouraging our best creative talents to play safe and conventional.

The best, most uplifting theatre comes from being bold and daring, from re-inventing the way a story is told or by introducing something new.

To keep revisiting past successes would be to slowly kill theatre. “Oh we don’t want to see Romeo and Juliet we’ve seen it before” would be awful. One of the great things about theatre is its ability to re-discover itself. The recent revival and reappraisal of the work of Terence Rattigan is a case in point.

Work from the past can always be reworked for the present – particularly as history has a habit of repeating itself.

Also actors, writers, directors and technicians will have all worked extraordinarily hard to produce even an evening which has turned into a bit of a disaster. To be fair, do they need you booing at them as well? They will have known that the whole thing is a pig’s ear. A rather muted response and a rapid exit would tell all they needed to know – or more likely confirm their worst fears.

Booing is just being cruel – adding insult to injury.

The problem with The Royal Opera’s new staging of Dvor�k’s Rusalka was that it had strayed rather too far from its source material. It was too much brothel and not enough Little Mermaid fairytale.

Happily booing is rare – rare enough for this week’s round of raucous raspberries at The Royal Opera House to be reported as news.

Standing ovations, on the other hand, are rather more common. I have participated in a good two dozen such events. The most recent was to provide an exuberant expression of joy and a hearty well done to the cast of Reasons To Be Cheerful at the New Wolsey.

Standing ovations should be spontaneous and joyful – never studied or pre-prescribed. However, some curmudgeonly commentators believe that they are an American invention which have no place in British theatre life.

I find this a bit hard to stomach. Are they suggesting that all we should offer is a round of polite light applause? I think the response should match the audience’s enjoyment of the evening.

Certainly, if we are to entertain booing, then we should certainly allow something as positive as a standing ovation.

I suspect that this reservation about demonstratively showing your appreciation is all wrapped up in the snobbery of theatre – particularly in London’s first night theatre circle.

Take the recent hammering that All New People took at The Duke of York’s theatre. It was universally damned by the critics and yet the audience lapped it up. Who is right? Certainly the critics don’t want their position undermined by crowds giving shows standing ovations, particularly when they want to deliver a fine roasting in the following morning’s paper.

Certainly critics have a role to play – after all I am one myself – they bring experience and expertise that a casual theatregoer doesn’t possess but their verdict is still largely a personal opinion, shaped by the 101 external elements that shape our lives.

But, there is also another form of snobbery at work – one that stretches back to the early days of the 20th century. As Sir Trevor Nunn points out in an interview in tomorrow’s EADT, some theatrical commentators still don’t believe that song and dance represent serious, legitimate theatre.

Sir Trevor quite rightly dismissing this position as nonsense but it is easier to give a musical a standing ovation than a piece of thoughtful drama.

Audiences who are moved – and maybe slightly tearful – by a drama do respond with vigorous applause but are less likely to rise to their feet. It’s simply the nature of the experience they have just had. It doesn’t mean they haven’t enjoyed it any more or any less than a first-class musical it’s just different.

The very nature of a musical means that it ends on a high. As Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers proves, along with Miss Saigon and West Side Story, you can have musicals that are also incredibly moving.

These same stories without music would be regarded as a serious drama with songs they are somehow lesser forms of art. But, as we all know, the presence of music can add a lot to the effectiveness of a show.

So should we boo? Is it ever acceptable to boo? Personally I would say no but I would defend an audiences’ right to show their displeasure if they had been subjected to an exceptionally awful night’s entertainment.

Much better for all concerned to be rewarding a great night in the theatre with a standing ovation.