Often ahead of his time, it comes as no surprise that Shakespeare’s famous monologue from pastoral comedy As You Like It can be used to summarise theatre-goers in 2024. The speech, which compares the world to a stage and people to performers, sequences seven stages of a man’s life. Unfortunately, audience members have recently chosen to display the worst of these seven stages during the course of a two-hour show. Whilst the playwright categorised infants as “mewling and puking”, it disappointingly seems to now be drunken adults displaying these traits. Speaking anonymously to Sky News, front-of-house workers at West End theatres recounted horror stories which make the Theatre Royal’s The Enfield Haunting seem like an episode of Scooby Doo. From drunk audience members vomiting in the stalls, to fights breaking out at the stage door, it is unsurprising that, according to a survey undertaken by theatre union BECTU, 50% of theatre staff are considering quitting their job.
On the bright side, front-of-house workers can rest assured that members of the audience will be quick to take their place. However, some training will certainly be necessary. Whilst talking during a play or musical is unforgivable, oftentimes the theatre-goer doing the telling off is more distracting than the original offender. An exaggerated ‘shhhhh’ motion, reminiscent of the end credits of The Simpsons, is employed, often accompanied with a statement obvious even to Shakespeare’s mewling and puking infant: “I’m trying to watch!” But I didn’t want to watch The Simpsons, or babysit the manchild in Row G – I wanted to enjoy the play whose tickets I spent a small fortune on.
Although police attendance has been recorded at several performances, including West End’s Grease and The Bodyguard in Manchester, poor theatre etiquette is more commonly seen in the form of mobile phones. Stephen Schwartz – a well-renowned musical theatre lyricist and composer – recently expressed his disdain towards audience members using their phone whilst watching a show, arguing that it is not only disrespectful to the performers, but unfair for the rest of the audience. This has been echoed by a number of actors, including the late Richard Griffiths (Uncle Vernon from the Harry Potter franchise), who, during a 2005 performance, broke character to ask a woman to turn off her mobile after it rang for the third time. Even more shockingly, actor Andrew Scott recalls an audience member taking out their laptop midway through Hamlet’s iconic “to be, or not to be” soliloquy.
Whilst it can be exciting to see a show starring a famous actor, these performances often lead to the worst theatre etiquette. Benedict Cumberbatch was forced to speak to audience members personally at the stage door after he noticed he was being filmed whilst acting in Hamlet. This incident is particularly disappointing as it is now fairly common for plays to be shown in the cinema or made available on streaming services, such as Disney+.
In summary, it is not difficult to behave well at the theatre: you literally just have to sit there! Please don’t order popcorn; if you have a persistent cough, for the love of God, stay at home; and be polite to the hardworking staff. If you’re lucky enough to meet an actor at the stage door, don’t shove your programme or phone camera in their face, and pee before the show – you likely won’t have time during the interval and will be that annoying person trying to shuffle their way back to their seat ten minutes into Act Two. All the world’s a stage – so play nicely.