Ian Hart – the Speaking in Tongues star who, at a Whatsonstage.com Q&A last month (See Radio, 14 Oct 2009), declared that he hates theatre because of the “intrusion” of the “abhorrent” audience - is facing possible police action after allegedly attacking a theatregoer at the Duke of York’s theatre.

At the curtain call of Monday evening’s performance of Speaking in Tongues, Hart remonstrated with Gerard Earley, a web designer from south London, and then allegedly came down from the stage through the pass door and into the auditorium to yell at him, accusing Earley of talking during the show, before being restrained by ushers.

Earley told the press: "I thought he was going to jump down but (co-star) John Simm put his arm up to stop him. Then he just ran off the side of the stage. He came back out and ran at me. I'd sat back down by then and he was screaming and shouting, incoherent with rage. He was saying, 'You're disrespecting me, you're not respecting the other actors’. I said, ‘You must be mistaking me for someone else’, and he just lost it completely. Spittle started flying out his mouth and the ushers were holding him back.

“I was very scared. He was standing up and leaning over me. I felt threatened when he started screaming and I couldn't make out what he was saying - he was pretty feral at that point." Earley, who was so shaken that he took yesterday off work, has reportedly contacted police and is considering pressing assault charges.

In media interviews, other members of Monday’s audience confirmed that Hart’s actions were unprovoked. One woman said that, in the second act, while still in character, Hart pointed at Earley and told him to “shut up” and then fixed him with an “unnerving” glare throughout the curtain call, just before the incident.

Both the Speaking in Tongues producers and Hart’s agent have declined to comment on the alleged episode, though Hart himself, speaking to the Evening Standard after last night’s performance, dismissed it as “just a lot of silliness” and emphasised that the attack was merely “alleged”.

Hart made very clear his feelings towards the audience in a post-show Q&A at our Whatsonstage.com Outing to Speaking in Tongues on 13 October (See Radio, 14 Oct 2009 – including downloadable podcast of the full Q&A). According to the actor, the audience and its reactions, good or bad, have no impact on his performance – though he acknowledged, after shouts from the stalls, that theatregoers do serve some purpose, by ultimately paying his wages through their ticket-buying.

When his co-star Kerry Fox asserted that audiences are “incredibly important” because their mood affects her performance, Hart responded: “That’s what I hate about theatre. What Kerry’s just outlined as a pleasure and a joy to me is an intrusion on what I do for a living. The audience, I can’t stand you. Collectively, not individually, I’m sure you’re all lovely people, but as a collective entity I find you abhorrent. I genuinely don’t understand from your side of that divide what it is that you want. That’s up to you to decide, what it is you come in with, whatever it is you want to get out of this experience.

He continued: “As far as I’m concerned, it ends at the edge of the stage and I work on the stage with my colleagues, tell the story, and obey the writer’s instructions and the director’s intentions. What you get out of it is entirely up to you. I don’t feel it’s my responsibility to respond to your laughter, your crisp packets. It’s not my responsibility to take on board.”

Hart returned to the four-hander last night and has said that he will continue until the end of the run on 12 December. Though Hart is best known for his many film credits - including Backbeat, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Land and Freedom, Wonderland and A Cock and Bull Story - he is no stranger to the stage. His London theatre credits include Pinter’s The Homecoming, which transferred to the West End and New York following its initial run at Dublin’s Gate Theatre, and 2,000 Feet Away at the Bush.

Speaking in Tongues centres on nine parallel lives - interlocked by four infidelities, one missing person and a mysterious stiletto - which are interwoven through a fragmented series of confessionals, interrogations and inter-cut scenes. First seen in author Andrew Bovell’s native Australia in 1996, the play had its UK premiere at Hampstead Theatre in 2000 and was adapted by Bovell for the big screen as the 2001 film Lantana. This West End premiere production is directed by Toby Frow and also stars Lucy Cohu.

For further comment, see Michael Coveney's blog