Monday, August 3, 2009


By James Karas

If you go to the theatre regularly, you will see some great plays in superb productions and some awful pieces in equally dreadful productions. There are times when what happens in the audience is more entertaining or more annoying that the good or bad action on the stage.

Theatre managers have devised many ways just to remind people to turn off their mobile phones or unwrap their candy before the performance begins and almost invariably someone (usually the person sitting right behind you) will leave some noise-producing device on.

Several years ago I went to the Royal Theatre in Thessaloniki with my teenaged nephew. He was clearly bored by the epic drama by a Turkish playwright and reached for his cell. He started text-messaging his friends. I gave him an elbow and showed him a clenched fist. He put the phone away.

My fist did not hold sway over all members of the audience in the sparsely attended performance. A cell phone rang and a well-dressed gentleman answered it. He was not without manners however. He leaned over to continue the conversation and he told his caller where he was and the they would meet later. He then put the phone away and continued watching the play.

Then there was the performance at Harbourfront that was badly attended. Fewer than a dozen people were scattered around the theatre on a cold weekday. A middle-aged gentleman was sitting alone near the front and there was no one near him for half a dozen rows. When the play was well under way, the gentleman’s head slumped backward and he started snoring. This was not some polite purr but a contrapuntal emission of dissonant, snorting noises that could be heard through the theatre if not in Toronto Harbour.

The handful of us in the audience became embarrassed and uneasy as this did not seem to be a short snooze. There was no one near him to give him the usual elbow in the ribs and wake him up. The snoring seemed to last an eternity until some one from a few rows away took it upon himself to go and wake up the snoozer.
Last September the National Theatre of Greece presented Sophocles’ Electra at the NYCity Center during its annual visit to New York City.

In the usual course, the audience was advised to turn off their mobile phones and other devices before the curtain went up. The advice did not apply to one person who happened to be sitting right in front of me. Just as Orestes emerged from the palace door, a dagger in his hand dripping with blood after butchering his mother, a cell phone went off. It had a loud, musical ring and kept on for what seemed an eternity.

The owner could not locate it and it kept ringing until it stopped on its own. During the highly charged climax of the play, it went off again and the offender again went rummaging through a duffel bag and could not find it. Several members of the audience wanted to do to that dork what Orestes had just done to Clytemnestra. It would have been justifiable homicide. 

A few years ago I went to London for my annual dose of theatre. I rushed from the airport after an all night flight to Leceister Square for half-price tickets and went to see Goldoni’s The Master of Two Servants. I sat a few rows from the stage and promptly fell asleep. I perked up after the intermission just as the star stepped out of character and started to engage the audience. He was making comments about the spectators and asked if there were any Canadians in the theatre. I raised my hand. “You decided to wake up, did you” came his pointed comment. Oops, he noticed!

The Tony for bad manners and, incidentally, the most devastating theatrical review, must go to my son Michael. I was sure that love of theatre is hereditary and since I love theatre so should my children. Season tickets to the Young People’s Theatre went without saying and as soon as he could pronounce the word Shakespeare, it was time to take him to Stratford. He gave everything a bad review ranging from “this is life threatening” to muttering under his breath when the lights went down that “my torture begins.”

My wife and I tried to convince him with exaggerated enthusiasm that he will find plays that he likes and enjoy the theatre. He did not and proved it when we took him to see H.M.S. Pinafore at Stratford. As soon as the show began, he took off his sweater and wrapped it tightly around his head with one sleeve falling over his eyes. He pushed the sleeve aside on occasion only to see that the show was still on. He would let out a groan and cover his face again.

When the lights went on for intermission, he stood up and gave what must be the shortest but most devastating review imaginable: in the words of Chaucer “he let fly a fart as great as if it had been a thunder-bolt.” Disciplining him or even a mild reprimand were out of the question: we burst out in uncontrollable laughter.

Playing Australian Rules football and going to the Blue Jays’ and Raptors’ games was more to our son’s liking and we had to let it go at that.

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