Hurrah for Imelda Staunton, for having the courage to say the unsayable, and suggesting that people should be discouraged from eating and drinking in the theatre. "I don’t know why people can’t engage in just one thing. I don’t understand this obsession with having to eat or drink something at every moment of the day," she told the Radio Times.
It struck a chord. Generally, I am with her that as a society we have become weirdly compulsive about food and drink. All this carrying bottles of water everywhere we go and panicking if we don’t sip at every given moment. And the whole idea of snacking. And eating in public. Whatever happened to not eating between meals and trying, wherever possible, to consume those at a table.
Shakespeare's groundlings ate, but they also threw sewage out of windows
But the trouble is that as soon as I write that, I know I sound like my grandmother. And the problem is even more acute when it comes to criticising a rustling in the stalls. Given that we want as many people as possible to believe that the theatre is for them – and I do, as I am sure Staunton does – you sound exclusive and snobbish when you even suggest that codes of behaviour might actually be necessary.
What worries me, however, is how many people might be put off going to the theatre by the noise around them. Over the past fortnight, I attended a performance of An Inspector Calls where the majority of the schoolchildren in the stalls seemed to be determined to eat as much as they could from the loudest wrappings they could find as the curtain went up. It is a tribute to the production and the play that mandibles fell silent and comestibles were put away as it progressed, but the start was virtually drowned out.
Drinks are just as bad. Also last week my husband, in English National Ballet’s performance of Akram Khan’s Giselle that was so overwhelmingly powerful that you could hear a pin drop, had the misfortune to sit next to someone who felt the need to sip white wine noisily all through. And Simon Russell Beale‘s mesmerising delivery of Prospero’s final farewell to magic at the RSC was only slightly marred by the unmistakable sound of a plastic tumbler rolling under someone’s seat. I myself am guilty of pulling a plastic water bottle out of my bag and making a terrible popping sound at a moment of high drama in the Royal Court’s excellent The Sewing Group.
What worries me is how many people might be put off going to the theatre by the noise around them
We can get too precious about this, I know. I know too that Shakespeare‘s groundlings ate, drank and threw oyster shells while watching performances at the Globe. But they also threw their sewage out of windows and had a nasty habit of stabbing each other in duels. Some things do actually change for the better.
So I’m with Imelda. People should think hard before they buy food or drink to take into a theatre; and if they must have sustenance at all times, they should think about those around them before they rustle, slurp and chew. Theatre is for everyone – and that includes the people who want to concentrate on the show.