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Open Features: Noises Off

The unwrapping of sweets, whispered conversations, the slurping of drinks, the checking of text messages and the occasional ring of a mobile phone...

Mary Pilfold-Allan is disturbed by the noises off that have become part of theatre- and opera-going.

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Having never again attempted to become a performer since I was turned down for the part of the Virgin Mary’s understudy at the tender age of seven (that scarred me for life!) in the school’s nativity, I have no idea what those with stars in their eyes really think of audiences.

I can only imagine it is a case of “love em’, hate em’ but can’t do without em’”.

What I do know is, that from a theatregoer’s point of view, audiences have certainly changed over the years, for better and for worse.

Going to the theatre used to be something you looked forward to for weeks and dressed up for; an evening at the opera even more so. Tickets were hard won. Men wore suits and sometimes bow ties, women smart dresses. A really grand night out demanded borrowed pearls, and the velvet cloak out of mothballs.

All that has altered. You can now turn up at a ticket booth in the middle of the afternoon and get yourself a seat for that night’s West End performance. Going to it wearing jeans and a T-shirt will not so much as raise an eyebrow.

The same can be said for opera. When I first started attending performances at The Coliseum, home of the English National Opera, a black dress and smart jacket were de rigueur. My first visit to Covent Garden demanded even more sartorial elegance. Whilst I applaud efforts to make both theatre and opera readily available to all, something of occasion has definitely been lost with the ‘dress down’ culture.

There is an issue too about correct behaviour during performances. Unwrapping sweets, whispering to companions, slurping drinks, checking text messages and even the occasional ringing of a mobile phone have now become part and parcel of today’s audience participation.

Is it any different elsewhere in the world? If you go to the opera in Verona you know what you are getting; great camaraderie, possibly a shared picnic offer both before and after the opera, but without doubt, absolute concentration on the performance during it. There opera devotees follow the score, sit with rapt attention and would no more chat to each other while Desdemona dies than confess to Grandma that they do not like her spaghetti sauce.

In Vienna on New Year’s Eve, the State Opera House is so awash with jewels and perfume you could be forgiven for thinking you had stepped back into a 19th century. ‘Grand performance’. The production is a side issue. Paris Opera is much the same.

Am I sounding like a grumpy old woman? Yes, I guess I am and perhaps it’s time I auditioned to join the ranks of those making a profession out of the role. As I said, audiences are changing for better and for worse. Numbers of those paying out to attend a West End show have risen drastically over the last few years. Sour grapes would say it has more to do with the impact of television’s casting by public vote than it does a genuine upsurge in the population’s enthusiasm for live shows. Does it matter if the end result is more bums on seats? What would be nice is if those enthusiastic coach parties coming from all over the country to see their chosen Maria or Joseph on stage, could bear to do without a boiled sweet in a noisy wrapping and keep their comments to themselves, until after the curtain comes down.

Despite my grousing, I fully acknowledge that we still have a long way to go to beat audiences in Mauritius. I once had occasion to attend a production of Carmen in The Plaza theatre, Rose Hill. First of all the concept of ticket money helping to pay production costs was completely lost on everyone. If it were possible to scoot around the back or sweep past the doorkeeper without paying a rupee, so much the better.

Secondly, although everyone dressed up, satin frocks to the floor did not prevent ladies from climbing over seats to get a more advantageous view. And thirdly, no one thought to tell a small boy that his Mickey Mouse watch going off with a merry jingle every quarter of an hour was not adding anything to Bizet’s music. Best of all, was the audience clapping when Carmen died.

Perhaps I just have to accept that we have reached a point in our theatre and opera going when there are really two performances to an evening out; the performance on the stage and the performance in the auditorium. Then come to think of it, if that happens we will have simply come full circle. Wasn’t it Charles II who saw Nell Gwynne selling oranges to an audience and fell for her performance?

August 2008 Mary Pilfold-Allan

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