Throughout the ages, actors have had to put up with any number of disturbances, whether it be stones, rotten, stinking produce or the dreaded mobile. I witnessed Kevin Spacey pacing the stage during his brilliant Clarence Darrow at the Old Vic while a phone rang continuously, until he snapped: ‘If you don’t answer that, I will!"
Many actors have had similar experiences, myself included. I sat next to a man who actually answered his phone with the immortal line: "Can’t talk now, I’m watching a play." On one occasion the late, lamented Richard Griffiths asked a woman to leave the theatre after her phone rang for the third time, adding that the audience would be quite justified in suing her. Patti LuPone got so fed up one night during Shows for Days on Broadway that she marched into the stalls, grabbed the offender's phone and confiscated it backstage.
But it's not only phones that have driven actors to confront their audience openly: incessant giggling and talking have done so as well. More recently, Ken Stott famously halted a performance of A View from the Bridge after being driven to distraction by the noise of youngsters, eventually having them removed. Nicol Williamson once told a party of schoolgirls in the middle of Hamlet to "shut up and listen", threatening to start his performance all over again unless all chattering ceased "forthwith".
The only time I found myself halting a performance was during Somerset Maugham’s The Circle, at Chichester in 1976. During a rather tender love scene with Susan Hampshire, a gentleman, obviously the worse for drink, stood up and began shouting at what I can only assume was his wife. The noise became so intolerable that I had no compunction but to ask if the gentleman in question could be removed from the auditorium, at the same time apologising to the audience, who greeted my intervention with an immediate burst of applause; after which I could do no wrong for the rest of the evening.
Mind, rowdy audiences have always had a place in history. Charles Dickens attended Samuel Phelp’s opening night of Macbeth in 1844, and recalls watching "amidst the usual hideous medley of fights, catcalls, shrieks, howls, oaths, obscenities, apples, oranges, biscuits and pipes. Pints of beer were carried through the dense crowd at all stages while fish was fried at the entrance doors".