"...What on earth is going on and when so many shows are getting them does it devalue the response?" - Victor, Edmo
Twenty years ago standing ovations were a rarity in British theatre. So rare that I still recall the first night for The Normal Heart at the Royal Court in 1986 where the entire audience, including critics, stood. I suspect that it was as much to do with the subject matter of the play—it was still at the height of the Aids crisis with many still dying and yet to die—as it was with the production or the performances.
That doesn’t diminish that response in any way. I suspect that the NT’s upcoming revival of the play will—unless they hash it up completely (unlikely with that director and cast)—elicit the same response but for slightly different reasons. Not least because this production of Larry Kramer’s play will seem like a work speaking from one pandemic to another.
The reasons why audiences stand and cheer are complex. Sometimes—particularly after a long show—they are actually clapping the cast and themselves for staying the distance. I’ve noticed that longevity—an elderly much loved actor doing a solo turn—almost always elicits standing ovations as if somehow the audience think it is a miracle the performer is on stage at all rather than tucked up early in bed with a cup of Horlicks.
As ticket prices have risen the need to affirm that you were right to shell out a small fortune on the ticket can add to the desire to rise to your feet as soon as the curtain falls. In recent years I’ve noticed that even the stunningly mediocre will get somebody on their feet at the curtain call. Although of course that somebody may well be the playwright’s mum/boyfriend/financial backer so it’s not surprising they want to lead a chorus of hurrahs. You can hardly blame them. In any case, even if the material and production are less than impressive the actors always deserve a good clap from your seat. They have got to go out and do it all over tomorrow night.
A few people standing to cheer is easily ignored but when more do there is quite significant pressure to stand too or look like a curmudgeon. In some cases, standing ovations can be deceptive: when those in rows ahead of them rise to their feet those behind often stand not because they are delirious with joy but simply because they want to see the curtain call.
Michael Billington once called standing ovations “a filthy American habit” and until the turn of the century they were definitely far more evident on Broadway than in the English theatre. But English reserve has been overcome and there is no reason why if you really loved a show why you shouldn’t demonstrate your enthusiasm. After all, theatre conventions change all the time: when I was growing up in suburbia in the Sixties and Seventies it was common for audiences to clap the set and first entrances of the leading actors. A bit before then (well 400 years) the disgruntled would throw rotten fruit.
Nobody should ever feel forced into standing if they don’t want to ( or indeed can’t, there might be a myriad of reasons why somebody doesn’t get to their feet including ill-health and frailty and that doesn’t mean they didn’t love the show.) But I also think it’s about context and at the moment one of the reasons that almost every show is getting a standing ovation is because audiences want to express their joy at being back in the theatre and their appreciation for a theatre industry that has fought to re-open against all the odds. (And a government without a clue about how the industry works and the journey of a show to the stage)
I don’t think that audiences showing they value theatre devalues the standing ovation in any way. I suspect that as time goes by and theatre becomes less of a novelty audiences will stand less often. But for the moment let’s enjoy the performance of their enjoyment.
Cover image: Press night at Agatha Christie's 'Witness for the Prosecution' at London County Hall. Photo by Ellie Kurttz.