What the Fox said tells you lots about theatregoers

With Laurence Fox walking off stage in London this week, Michael Simkins tells us how actors deal with heckling.

Helen Mirren recently left not only the stage mid-show, but also the building, while she briefly remonstrated with some impromptu drummers out in the street. Charles Sykes / Invision / AP Photo
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I’m appearing in a new play here in London’s theatreland, at a fashionable but distinctly cosy studio space about the size of my sitting room. Because of this I was especially interested to read this week of a rumpus at a similar establishment a few miles awaythat brought a whole new meaning to the phrase “interactive entertainment”.

The incident involved an actor remonstrating with an audience member who’d offered up an unflattering comment within earshot during last Wednesday’s performance. Having responded to the not-so sotto voce critique with a few expletives of his own, the actor in question, Laurence Fox, left the stage, thus bringing proceedings to an untimely halt. Feathers have now been smoothed, but the incident highlights the occupational hazards of live performance.

How times change. When I started in the profession back in the 1970s the only sound you’d hear from the auditorium would be the discreet unwrapping of a sweet paper. Nowadays it’s more like feeding time at the zoo. In recent years I’ve not only had to contend with verbal brickbats but muttered conversations, the scrape of wooden spoons in ice cream tubs, the slurping of fizzy water, and occasionally the deep, rhythmical sound of snoring (perhaps the most damning critique of all). No wonder actors sometimes lose both their cool and their place in the script.

In addition, passing police sirens, reversing dustcarts and, in one venue, a whirring hand dryer in the dress circle washroom are all occupational hazards that have to be surmounted. Yet, the greatest threat remains the dreaded mobile phone. Whoever invented this fiendish device obviously wasn’t a thespian, for these wretched things have become the bane of the profession.

The start of a performance isn’t so bad, as most are preceded by a recorded announcement requesting punters to disable their devices in good time.

But the minute the interval arrives everyone reflexively switches them on again, either to check the football results, read their emails, or make sure their little darlings back home haven’t murdered the babysitter. Inevitably they forget to turn them off again for the second half, with predictable consequences.

Opinion is divided as to how best to cope with such interruptions. Should you soldier on gamely, stop in your tracks or take matters into your own hands by clambering down into the stalls and wresting the offending item from its owner? Helen Mirren recently left not only the stage mid-show, but also the building, while she briefly remonstrated with some impromptu drummers out in the street. What’s more, nobody seemed to notice.

I recall once seeing the inimitable David Suchet respond to an offending mobile by stopping mid-consonant and freezing dead still, a pose he kept until the noise was silenced some fifteen seconds later. His look of sadness and long-suffering patience during this brief hiatus was as damning as a hundred expletives.

Others, such as Hugh Jackman on Broadway, have employed the direct approach, asking the miscreant if they’d like to “answer the darned thing so we can get on with the play”.

The trouble is, you never know where such an approach might lead. One colleague of mine recalls performing one evening when he heard a phone going off in the darkness of the stalls, only for it to be answered a few moments later. “I can’t talk now I’m watching a play,” said the owner in a breathy whisper. After a brief but exquisite pause she continued: “No, not very …”

In art as in life, perhaps the best policy for any actor worried about unplanned interruptions is to get your retaliation in first. The story goes of the great actor Ralph Richardson, who allegedly walked to the front of the stage one evening mid-performance. “Is there a doctor in the house?” he asked urgently, peering out into the blackness.

“I’m a doctor,” replied a man half way back in the circle.

“Doctor,” continued Richardson, “Isn’t this an awful play…?”

Michael Simkins is an actor and writer in London

On Twitter: @michael_simkins