LAST weekend I had the pleasure of joining the Forth Valley branch of Friends of Scottish Opera at their Sunday afternoon meeting, and towards the end of a convivial two hours, spiced by mulled wine and mince pies, discussion turned to the vexed question of mobile devices in theatres. Lest you imagine that this is an older subscription-holders versus young ticket-buyers argument, the most vexed exchange I have had was with a woman years older than myself who was persisting in texting (and it beeped with each key-stroke!) after the National Theatre of Scotland show we were both supposed to be watching at the Edinburgh International Festival was well under way. Our terse sotto-voce exchange included her telling me that I wouldn’t be complaining if I knew how important her message was, and me suggesting that if it was that important, she should be dealing with it in the foyer.

The Scottish Opera patrons and I covered the waterfront on the topic, our collective irritation with those who use mobile devices tempered by the recognition of how useful we found our own, and also their growing application in the field of music in particular. I think Evan Ziporyn directing the Bang on a Can Allstars was the first occasion on which I saw a tablet computer replacing a printed score at a concert, but groups including the Belcea Quartet and the Scottish Ensemble now habitually appear with their music on iPads, the tricky business of page-turning for string players with two busy arms delegated to a useful footswitch. The Scottish Ensemble’s most recent concerts partnered them with chamber choir I Fagiolini, whose use of printed scores for the same music prompted the thought that singers may be the last to switch to an electronic alternative as, by way of contrast, paper music does give them something to do with their hands.

I have seen music students at concerts following the score on tablets or phones and, if the screen is not excessively bright, I can see no reasonable objection to that – or a critic making notes electronically rather that in the small notebook I favour. Obviously, however, the brightness of many mobiles when obsessively checking email in a darkened theatre is as much of a distraction as an audible phone, and I have noted and approved of people being chastised by their neighbours at performance for exactly that. On one occasion the complainer was the director of the Edinburgh International Festival who had programmed the show in question.

Loading article content

Questions of social etiquette in theatres are much to the fore in this week’s issue of the UK theatre-world’s house journal The Stage. There is the claim of a New York theatre producer that he was physically assaulted during the interval of the Old Vic’s production of A Christmas Carol by the male partner of a woman whose use of a mobile phone he had drawn to the attention of an usher. Conversely, the same issue has West End theatre-owner (and grande dame of the Edinburgh Fringe Comedy Award) Nica Burns saying that the sector will have to come to some accommodation with theatre-goers who want to snack during performances rather than ban eating in the auditorium.

The hard line according to Keith Bruce would have that outlawed, and tickets sold on the express condition that mobile devices are switched off and placed beyond use for the duration of the performance, but I recognise these are not sustainable positions. I enjoy a sweetie at the panto as much as the next refusal to grow up, elbowing small children out of the way when Buttons hurls them in my direction. At the invitation of the RSNO, I joined in the tweeting from the open rehearsal before their Nicola Benedetti-featuring concert at the start of this season, and it is fully five years since composer Matthew Herbert asked audiences to deploy the recording facility on their mobile to contribute to his composition at the BBC Proms in the Royal Albert Hall.

The pragmatic Burns is right – a zero-tolerance approach won’t wash. But nonetheless, a sensible code of manners must be established, for those onstage as much as for other ticket-buyers.