It’s been an interesting week: I have been making headlines this week as well as writing them for a change. My blog entry here on Monday that recounted my encounter with Bianca Jagger at last Friday’s Barbican opening of Einstein on the Beach was picked up, in turn, by the Daily Mail’s Richard Kay column on Tuesday, the Guardian news pages on Wednesday, plus a banner trailer on the front page to a G2 feature tied into it on theatrical etiquette; two Telegraph stories posted online yesterday, from both the news desk and a comment piece from Tim Walker; and an Evening Standard mention, so far.
The blog itself, meanwhile, has garnered unprecedented comment, including one from Bianca Jagger herself, in which she attempts to re-write history by claiming I’m trying to justify “physical assault & abusive behaviour” on her, and stating that she only “snapped a couple of photographs during curtain call, many others were taking photographs during the performance.”
I will stress once again that while I freely admit to insulting her (though there are far worse things I could have called her than only “a stupid woman”), I never assaulted her in any way, and did not so much as touch her at all. (I learnt my lesson once when I tapped a woman on the shoulder to get her attention who was talking through a Barbara Cook cabaret at New York’s Feinstein’s supper club, and wasn’t even facing the stage because she was so busy talking to the rest of her table; she immediately accused me of assault).
Fortunately, there were plenty of witnesses who had seen Jagger taking the pictures freely, including Ford Hickson who posted on the blog on Wednesday that he was in fact the first person to shout out ‘STOP TAKING PHOTOS’ during the show itself. As he itemised it: “She didn’t just take one or two during the curtain call, she was snapping away before the (enforced) interval. She’d taken three photos with a flash and a glowing screen before I told her to stop doing it…. She heard me, she did stop - for a couple of hours, then she did it again (short term memory issues?). Only one other person took a photo that I noticed. Stupid selfish arrogant artless people don’t apologise because they’re, well, stupid selfish arrogant and artless.”
Most intriguing discovery, though, was that Jagger, far from being a disinterested observer, is actually tight with Philip Glass and Robert Wilson, which makes her disrespect to the work they created even more perplexing; or perhaps she feels licensed by that friendship to do as she pleases. The night before the Barbican opening of Einstein on the Beach, Lady Linda Wong Davies hosted a screening of a documentary) on the making of the show, followed by a private dinner, that Ms Jagger attended, along with Glass and Wilson.
Wilson himself tweeted on Wednesday, “I love my friend @BiancaJagger & was thrilled she came to the premiere of Einstein2012. Much love to cast & crew for final shows this week.” You could run away with the idea that he is not bothered about having his work disrupted for his audience, and almost imagine that he shares the same contempt for his audiences as Jagger does.
I have, of course, taken up the matter with the Barbican myself, and their ineffective front-of-house action on the night. Toni Racklin, the Barbican’s head of theatre, responded to me by re-iterating what the theatre’s position is: “The Barbican’s policy is that taking photographs of performances is not permitted. Standard measures are in place to inform audiences of this. The UK premiere of Einstein on the Beach was an historic event and the highly visual nature of the production may have encouraged some audience members to ignore our photography regulations. The advances in technology and the increasing use of photography is changing audience behaviour within performance spaces and presents us, along with other venues, increasing challenges of control. We always have to strike a balance between the potential disruption of unauthorised photography and the disruption caused by front of house teams intervening directly with the audience.”
But if the theatre could not intervene on an occasion like this, when clear breaches were being made of that code, when could they? Given that tickets for the event specifically state on them that “the audience is invited to enter and exit at liberty during the performance”, why did the usher, stationed in the very row where the offence was being committed, not have gone down the row to deal directly with her?
Racklin also discloses, “reports from the evening do state that action was taken by front of house teams in response to the audience taking photographs.” In which case, if the offender had already been spoken to, surely the next stage would be to have asked her to leave. Instead, the venue manager who I eventually found after the performance, who admitted that he knew that it was happening, left it to me to confront her, instead of doing it himself.
But I was apparently not the only person finding myself seriously compromised by the activities of those around me. According to the blog of one theatregoer, Jonathan Green, he too wrote to the Barbican to complain after last Friday’s performance: “My friend and I sat in row S in seats 11 and 12 and directly behind us in row T were four men and one woman who talked loudly throughout the whole show. Initially we believed that they were customers like us - it then became apparent they were actually production staff. We asked them to be quiet. They ignored us. This behaviour continued throughout the whole performance - all five hours of it. Other patrons were also affects by this and moved away. Others asked them to be quiet - again these requests were ignored. There was no member of Barbican staff that we could find to complain to on the night. This was very frustrating.”
He went on to quote “a small snap shot of the ceaseless chatter” he was subjected to: “That’s wrong. Too slow. Too slow. Where’s the dry ice? Dry ice. DRY ICE! She’s late. Where is she? No. NO! To the left. LEFT. Lighting cue all wrong. That’s it. Slowly, slowly. What we need to do is bring that one on quicker. What’s that? NO! NO!” etc etc etc etc’.”
After making his complaint, he reports “a sort of happy ending. The Barbican called me to apologise explaining that it was actually the director Robert Wilson behind us. They have offered my two free tickets for this Friday so I’m going again. To enjoy the opera in the way I imagine Mr Wilson intended. In peace.”
The Guardian’s Leo Benedictus, meanwhile, wrote a two-page feature in G2 in which he canvased the paper’s critics to draw up a code of conduct, based on their own personal catalogues of theatrical irritations and grievances, from rattling jewellery at classical concerts to throwing beer at rock concerts. and personal hygiene and cleanliness issues that they’ve been affronted by, from fellow audience members (they don’t say whether they’ve ever had cause to complain about noxious fumes from fellow critics, though I know I have — but I’m afraid I’ve been too cowardly to say).
The Guardian also wisely cautions against over-reacting, which is itself an antisocial thing to do. It quotes Lyn Gardner saying that there’s now “a sort of war” between the old guard and the new in the theatre, and suggests, “Star-led casting, in particular, brings in people who are not used to the environment. They are more liable to behave badly, but they are also badly needed. If you love the theatre, then you are doing it a disservice by sending them home annoyed. On the other hand, when something is being a distraction nearby, you have a duty to do something. Others further off may be equally annoyed, but powerless, so they are depending on you. Remember that - and don’t rely on having an enraged Mark Shenton at the end of every row.”
In a comment piece for the Daily Telegraph, Tim Walker suggests the bad behaviour is all about a lack of respect: “Respect has, alas, gone out of fashion in the West End. These days, alas, jeans, T-shirts and even shorts in high summer are all but de rigueur in theatres, and, with this sloppy dress sense, comes a general sense of disregard for the sensibilities of others. Mobile telephones go off all the time. They don’t just go off, in fact. I have seen punters actually take the calls. Loudly. With the sweet wrapping rustlers, all the trips to lavatories, late-comers and the endless jibber-jabber of some others who don’t see why a performance should impede their conversations it is a wonder the actors can make themselves heard at all.”
It’s a theme echoed in a very powerful posting on my Jagger blog by Ian Rickson, former artistic director of the Royal Court, who wrote: “Anecdotally, over the past few years I have noticed a militant individualism creeping into many theatregoers regarding their mobile phones. This is what I observe: when the prohibitive announcement is played before a show the majority of people turn their phones onto silent. This allows them to keep an eye on their phones, check emails, and distract other people when the light flashes (and buzzes) as text messages come through. If you ask people to turn OFF their phone they look at you with a mixture of aggression and scorn. Like you I have been accused of assault, in this instance for placing a pen lightly on someone’s hand to get their attention and stop them actually speaking on the phone. Recently after I asked a lady to stop searching the internet on her phone during a show her partner threatened me as the show finished. The level of anger reveals the degree of compulsion people have for these objects.”
And Ian concludes, “I know that once people - myself included - are unstrapped from these addictive and delightful portals they are able to more fully give themselves actively to the theatre experience. The restless twitching and tweeting, texting and re-checking is a sad contemporary tic of what we have allowed to happen. Theatre is good medicine if we can passionately create the right culture for live performance to work by really paying attention, fully in the moment.”
Many people posting comments on my blog as well as The Guardian and Telegraph stories have itemised their own pet peeves. An occasional contributor to this blog is Russell Bowes, who writes a regular blog of his own, Russell’s Theatre Reviews, and has indeed weighed in my blog posting. He also posted a similar comment to the Telegraph story, but added an extra line: “I usually consider Mark Shenton to be a pompous ass. But not today.” I reckon that’s a rave review!