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"The conventions governing audience behaviour aren’t a given" - Dr Stephen Purcell

The fact that Benedict Cumberbatch has felt it necessary to request that his fans refrain from filming his performance on their phones reveals some interesting things about the cultural intersections going on at this particular theatrical event. The conventions governing audience behaviour aren’t a given: it’s perfectly normal (and often accepted) for fans to film their favourite artists at pop and rock concerts, for example. In theatre, of course, the form itself governs what is and isn’t acceptable: a play typically demands a different sort of attention than a gig does, and it may be harder for fellow audience members to concentrate when they are surrounded by the dull glow of mobile phone cameras. There’s also the issue of copyright to consider. But the fact that some of Cumberbatch’s fans are importing modes of spectating they have learned from popular culture into a high-culture event isn’t entirely bad news. When Shakespeare’s Globe opened in 1997, reviews were dominated by accounts of the distracting behaviour of spectators in this new theatre space which was ungoverned by a clear set of conventions for the way in which audiences should conduct themselves--but over time, both the audiences and the conventions adjusted. When David Tennant played Benedick in a 2011 production of Much Ado About Nothing in the West End, he made productive use of the kinds of response available from an audience composed of a higher-than-usual proportion of pop-culture fans.


There’s also something interesting going on here about the desire, which is becoming increasingly prevalent in our culture, to mediate the live event. Cumberbatch’s complaint was that “I can’t give you what I want to give you, which is a live performance that you will remember”. One can see his point: an experience which is governed by a desire to document it at all costs is very different from one which is marked most strongly by a sense of co-presence and ephemerality. Some theatre scholars have even suggested that the very definition of live performance is ‘representation without reproduction’ (Peggy Phelan, 1993). But Cumberbatch’s Hamlet is not going to belong in this pure (and perhaps imaginary) category of performance: quite aside from the bootleg recordings that the Barbican is keen to prohibit, National Theatre Live will broadcast the performance to hundreds of thousands of cinemagoers on 15 October, and doubtless in numerous repeat screenings after that date. It makes one wonder whether the idea of ‘liveness’ is already a precarious one, dependent on its opposite, the ‘mediatised’, for its cultural capital. Perhaps it’s no wonder that fans who have in some cases queued through the night for tickets will want to claim some of this cachet by mediatising their live experience themselves.


Dr Stephen Purcell is available for interviews. We have a Globelynx camera for TV interviews and an ISDN line for radio broadcasts.

Dr Stephen Purcell has written about Shakespeare, pop culture, audiences and 'liveness' in his books Popular Shakespeare (2009) and Shakespeare and Audience in Practice (2013)]

Contact Alex Buxton, Communications Manager, Press and Policy Office, The University of Warwick. Tel: 024 76 150423, Mob: 07876 218166. Email:


Alex Buxton

Communications Manager, University of Warwick

Tel: +44 (0)2476 150423

Mob: +44 (0)7876 218166