The Guardian's Michael Billington, describes "one of the most bizarre nights of my theatregoing life"--and that's saying something from this lion of a critic who you'd think has seen it all. But apparently no production in recent British history has been booed and jeered as much as a certain Three Sisters at the Edinburgh Festival this summer.
It began when, during an obviously sotto voce prelude, a loud voice from the stalls trumpeted "We can't hear you." Even when the volume was turned up, people sidled out, ostentatiously snored or muttered darkly during an admittedly interminable first half.
But it was during Chekhov's wonderful last act that disaster struck. Almost every line became a potential minefield. Masha only had to say "Isn't it awful?" or "I'm going out of my mind" for a torrent of jeering, derisive, mocking laughter to issue from the stalls.
Sounds like something out of the 19th century, doesn't it?
But, then again, when we read about such behavior in historical contexts we sometimes say, "Well at least they were engaged back then They cared about the theatre!" That explains the annoying rudeness you can still witness among opera snobs, who still let it all out.
So Billington ends up offering a kind of mischievous defense of booing.
Obviously spectators have a right to protest. They have, after all, paid their money...
But what should a dissatisfied customer do? A friend of mine who loathed the current RSC Tempest sat down and wrote a letter of instant protest to the company boss, Michael Boyd. That's one answer. Another solution is to leave at the interval. A third possibility, constantly deployed in opera houses, is to save your anger till the curtain call and boo your heart out. Any of those options seems to me preferable to that of sending up the actors on every line, which is what happened in Edinburgh.
The argument against that is simple. The actors are simply carrying out a concept determined by the director. To jeer at the performers themselves strikes me as rude and cruel; which is why I always dislike the courtly mockery of coarse actors at the end of A Midsummer Night's Dream and Love's Labour's Lost. As one of the victims says in the latter play, "This is not gentle, this is not humble." And the sound I heard in Edinburgh on Tuesday night was similarly that of contemptuous arrogance.
Which is why I think booing is the best bet. Even that isn't a pleasant sound. And there is something depressing about the way any production at the Coliseum or Covent Garden that mildly deviates from the norm is always greeted on the first night by a torrent of booing. But at least booing focuses the discontent.
So does blogging.