The audience: passive observers or something more sinister?

As someone who has been known to moonlight as a director of theatre, I know what it’s like to work on a play in an intense close-knit environment, before the work is revealed to the mass unknown body known as ‘the audience’. As a director it can be dangerous to think about this anonymous group during the creative process. As David Bowie said:

“The couple of times where I’ve remotely tried to take an audience into consideration, the work itself has been utterly a washout”.    ~ David Bowie, Dazed, 1995

Cut to curtain up, and this vast beast can take on a life of its own. It reacts differently each night, is disconcertingly unpredictable in nature, yet almost always acts as one entity. They might be a thoroughly engaged joy, or laugh uncontrollably at the joke you thought was the least funny, or simply just-not-get the bit you thought was perfectly crafted genius.

As a frequent audience member myself, the dark and cosy world of the stalls can often be a sinister and alienating place. It is a strange feeling being at odds with an audience. One of the first times I felt uncomfortable was during Posh at the Royal Court. I soon became aware that the jovial, glittering faces to my left and right were laughing along with the more vile views of the characters on the stage. I sat, silently outraged, torn between my appreciation of the brilliant cast and direction, and contempt for those around me. When I think of that play, I remember that experience.

Recently, I was lucky enough to acquire tickets to Les Liaisons Dangereuses at the Donmar. Things were ticking along nicely until a particularly dark moment.  For those who don’t know the play the ‘seduction’ scene or, what I would prefer to call the serious sexual assault scene, is where we see Valmont (older man) creep into the bedroom of the young and innocent 15 year old Cecile, to rape her. For some reason, although not played for laughs, a large portion of the audience erupted in guffawing laughter – and not the usual kind of uncomfortable awkward laughter one might expect. Suddenly I had the strong sensation some of the people around me potentially held very questionable views. The kind of views which quite frankly wouldn’t pass outside the jolly candle-lit world of the stage.

Overshadowing the production, I was flung out of the spell cast on stage. It led me to ask myself the following question: So often we expect our plays to tell us something about society, but is it the audiences who teach us more?

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