I always undertake school theatre trips with trepidation. You are, after all, entirely responsible for the safety of other people's children. However, I have vowed never to take students to a matinee performance again after being disgusted at the lack of theatre etiquette shown by teenage members of the audience at a recent performance.
This statement may sound elitist and inflammatory coming from a private school English teacher. But I take my responsibility to convey a passion for theatre seriously. A few weeks ago, I took 50 students up to Sheffield to watch a matinee performance of Daniel Evans's Othello. The theatre was packed, with every seat in the house filled by critics, full-price paying punters, and ... students. In their multitudes. The production itself was incredibly satisfying. Dominic West as Iago exuded a raw, salt-of-the-earth quality expressed in gruffly sexy Yorkshire tones. Lily James's Desdemona was vibrant and alluring. And Clarke Peters impressed as an Othello with dignity, refinement and an enticing darkness to his character.
However, it was in the last, dying stages (literally) of the play that I became incensed. Amid the battle sequences and tragic murderers, a hyena-like laughter erupted from hundreds of students. Desdemona's death was punctuated by high-pitched giggles and uproarious belly laughs. Clarke Peters and Lily James were clearly rattled, and valiantly continued despite the sounds. While I agree that Desdemona's defiant death - coming back to life quicker than Harry Potter - is difficult to accept, the scene was played with poignancy. So why did some students find it impossible to take it seriously?
The problem lies with pack mentality - the first tentative titters led to others following suit. Teenagers may be used to witnessing strong emotions on TV, but these aren't witnessed in front of so many of their own peers. But even if uncomfortable, why couldn't they appreciate what they were seeing or know to stifle their own awkward reactions? Where has theatre etiquette gone? Worse still were the shout-outs that followed. After Othello's suicide, the epic line uttered by Lodovico, "O bloody period!" was regurgitated by one individual, clearly amused by its modern interpretations. The crowd of teenagers lapped it up, eager for more one-liners.
While my students are far from saints, they looked as dismayed and disgusted as I did at the behaviour exhibited. We often assume our students know what is to be expected, forgetting that, for some, a school trip will be their first ever experience of going to a theatre.
If we take students to the library, they are told about silence. If we take students to a Gurdwara, they are given clear expectations of behaviour inside a place of worship. So how did learning theatre etiquette escape so many students last week?
The Bristol Old Vic recently asked all teachers to collect in mobile phones from students before they allowed them into the auditorium. Theatres send out advice packs on how to behave. Yet clearly there are many schools unable to pay heed. We need to guarantee decent behaviour from students before we organise such trips. It is our responsibility, after all.
Personally, I will not go to another matinee performance with my pupils; not because they can't behave, but so they don't have to endure the immature behaviour we experienced in Sheffield. Until we can educate our students in how to behave at the theatre, I think it is our responsibility to keep them in captivity with a tired old DVD of the play for the sanity of actors and other theatre-goers.
Lucinda McKee teaches English at Bromsgrove School.