To boo or not to boo. William Russell explores the appropriateness of audience response.
One of the more memorable evenings in the theatre recently for me was the night the audience for Rossini’s William Tell at Covent Garden took offence at a lengthy rape scene the director Damiano Michielotto had devised for one of the ballet sequences which operas of that period always have.
What was happening on stage did not match the music. Michielotto, making his debut as a director, had devised a scene in which a group of solders in their mess started to assault a young woman. It ended with the naked woman wrapping herself in the tablecloth and fleeing into the wings.
The audience booed loudly and long. It was one of those scenes you watch appalled, and watched by numbers – one knew what was coming next, predicatability is not a good quality in theatre. The soldiers teased her, they fondled her, then it got rough, then it got physical and ended, as one knew it would, with the ravaged and naked woman rushing out.
Violence in time of war was the excuse, the plot having been updated to the time of the war in Bosnia rather than freedom fighters in Switzerland. These were occupying forces doing what does happen but that was not reason to stage a scene in which the audience was almost invited to gloat. Rape is not unseen on cinema screens, but in the cinema editing helps create the required effect on the audience without lingering on what is happening. Whereas when you stage something in the flesh as it were you have to go through the whole sequence of events.
It may have been done to create a fuss, which it duly did. Debut directors and rising stars like to do that. But the audience was genuinely horrified and the result was Kaspar Holten, the director of opera, had to send out a deeply apologetic grovelling letter to all those who wrote complaining and the sequence was apparently toned down, whatever that means.
I am not against theatre creating outrage. But this was going too far. The issue, however, is – was the audience right to boo? Should it have waited until the end?
Being the first night the creatives were due to come on at the end to take a bow after the performers had been applauded. But that only happens on first nights. Some music critics got rather stuffy about the audience expressing its opinion in the way it did by interrupting the performance.
I think the more audiences react vocally the better.
The booing was an honest expression of outrage, and hugely preferable to the sycophantic ululating which friends of the cast and the producers often indulge in at theatre first nights, although as a means of vocally expressing an opinion that seems acceptable.
Of course organised claques who turn up to barrack some performer they do not like are a bad thing. But making a noise of disapproval is not. Throwing pennies on stage, a one time habit in variety theatres, is dangerous and I am not encouraging that. But letting the performers and those who created the work know that one does not like it is no bad thing, and some booing as opposed to tepid applause reinforces the point. In this case, by the way, the audience was not attacking the performers as it loudly applauded every subsequent aria and gave the cast a warm reception at the end.
After all theatre is a live event and the audience is a living, breathing entity entitled to express its opinion.