I’m not often driven to rage in the theatre, but at Friday’s opening of Robert Wilson’s production of Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach at the Barbican Theatre I found my patience sorely tested, and I not only reached breaking point, I actually snapped.
The amazing show — part art installation, part minimalist musical meditation, part dance spectacle — is an endurance test to begin with, not least on the bladder, even though a technical breakdown at a clearly shockingly under-prepared Barbican meant an unscheduled break afforded a pee break in the five hour show that is meant to run continuously without an interval.
But at Friday’s performance, there were further trials brought about by the behaviour of the audience, and in particular, one person in the middle of the same row as me, who persistently took flash photographs throughout the performance. It was as blatant and unashamed as could be; she held up the camera and simply flashed away.
At the end of the show, I asked the usher (who had been stationed at the end of my row throughout the performance but had utterly failed to police it) to summons the house manager, so I could point out the offender; but no one materialised. So I confronted the offender myself, going into full Patti LuPone ‘who do you think you are?’ mode as I did so — and receiving a few cheers as the exiting audience babble died down enough for my declaration ‘You stupid woman’ to be heard by everyone around me.
It was only as I was exiting the theatre myself that someone told me exactly who the person thought she was: Bianca Jagger. Who, I was also told, had already been asked to stop by those around her. But clearly she was above it all.
I eventually found the Barbican’s venue manager Fred McDonald, who at first denied being responsible for the house management (though if he wasn’t responsible, who was?), and then insisted that he did know about the problem already — and that she had been spoken to during the earlier break, but he couldn’t be everywhere. However, an usher was in the house and in the same row throughout the performance — but hadn’t acted, either. As it is, too, it shouldn’t have been up to me to remonstrate with her — that’s his job, not mine.
Once I got home, I took to Twitter to express my frustration, and found a lot of support from people who had been similarly affected, some of whom reported also speaking up. But I also caught short by being accused of something even more disturbing: someone who found that those protesting the problem had, in his opinion, caused more disruption that the disruption itself.
“Sorry but those shouting at others to stop taking photos - ie, YOU - were making more of a disruption than the photographers,” someone called Igor Toronyi-Lalic tweeted, whose twitter profile says he’s a music/arts writer for The Times, Telegraph and theartsdesk.com. And he went on to say, “Much more offensive than flash photography are the loud mouth arseholes who shout out ‘STOP TAKING PHOTOS’.”
Actually, that wasn’t me — I didn’t shout anything till afterwards. But never mind: when I in turn posted that I was “amazed that a so-called arts journalist “@igortoronyi is suggesting that trying to prevent photography was more disruptive than offender,” he replied, “Yeah I am! Mouthy complainers disrupted my Minimalism mini-fest in same way. What’s your beef with flash photography?” And then, for good measure, added, “You can’t ALL be epileptic.”
Leaving aside the casual slur on epilepsy, I became genuinely curious how he could maintain that photography is not disruptive, and asked him by twitter direct message. This is not on a public timeline, so I can’t link to his replies, but here’s how the conversation went:
@shentonstage: Do I have to explain why flash photography RUINS the perf for those around you? Really??
@igortoronyi: Yeah I’m sorry you totally do. It’s NEVER bothered me.
@shentonstage: OK, if you don’t get that its disruptive, I can’t get that it’s NOT! As a matter of interest, how do you feel about people texting/surfing web during theatre? Presumably you don’t find that disruptive either?
@igortoronyi: I have a problem with excess. But a few photos, a few tweets. Who cares?
I have subsequently checked his twitter timeline, and it turns out that he actually live tweeted during the show after its breakdown, reporting,”Shambles here at the Barbican. Show’s restarted without half audience.”
It’s a pity that the half that remained, though, included Bianca Jagger. And in her own public tweet timeline, she insisted in a reply to someone who complained about her behaviour, “You are making allegations without proof, many around me where taking pic. It’s not a crime 2 take pic during curtain call.” Which isn’t, in fact, what she was doing: I had seen her taking pictures regularly throughout the show with my own eyes!
And then she played the victim, a classic defence move, replying in turn: “Do u approve of the abusive behaviour of the man who pushed me around & insulted me at the theatre last night? Without proof.” For the record, I did not touch her. At all. I will, however, freely admit to deliberately insulting her. I’m glad she so obviously heard it.
I have also written to the Barbican’s managing director Nicholas Kenyon, director of programming Louise Jeffreys and head of theatre Toni Racklin regarding what happened. Jeffreys has already responded to promise a full investigation into the front-of-house issues. I await it with interest.
As for the technical problems, it seems like they were fixed by the second performance. How do I know? Igor Toronyi-Lalic went back for more — and tweeted on Saturday night, “Well they sure turned it around. Night two of @EinsteinBeach and all major glitches have been erased. A fantastic performance.” And no Bianca Jagger taking photographs either, presumably. Not that he would have noticed if there was…. unless someone disrupted his own “minimalism mini-fest” by daring to complain about it.
Editor’s note, May 11: Mark has written an update to this story, including responses from other publications. As such, comments on this post will be closed, but remain open on the follow-up column.