Picture the scene: It’s 6pm, you are checking the details of your ticket to make sure you haven’t booked for the wrong day (no one wants to be that guy) and suddenly you see it, the dreaded words:
Since when did audiences’ bladder stamina become something which needed to be put to the test? More and more plays are making the decision to have a non-stop show which although has its merits, definitely makes a trip to the theatre just that little bit more stressful. I have noticed this trend in productions, and I suspect that the question is no longer: shall we cut the interval, but should we add one? There are many factors that influence this decision, but the crucial ones are money and the production length.
The minute you scratch the interval, the theatre itself loses out on a ton of alcohol and ice cream revenue. Not just from the interval but also beforehand, people are far less likely to have a large glass of wine before curtains up if they know that they are going to have to hold it in for two hours. The loss of the interval income may have less of a negative consequence in the West End, but regional theatres are increasingly now, quite justifiably, insisting on intervals in their contracts with production companies.
Theatre is expensive, it’s a fact. With this in mind, how can we expect audience members to pay full price for a Saturday ticket and yet be back out on the street at 9pm? This is no longer an evening’s entertainment, as more money must be spent to fill the extra hours. Some say that the show has to last longer than the train up to London (this is clearly subjective, but I get it). For example, a revival of ‘Far Away’ by Caryl Churchill is now playing at the Donmar Warehouse , with a run time of precisely 39 minutes. This has led to audiences being free by 8.30pm, wondering what to do with the rest of the evening. Although there have been countless, understandable complaints, I am a great believer in the idea that a play should only be as long as it needs to be. Plays which have been cut to within an inch of their life or bulked out with sawdust have equally unstable foundations. As Sarah Crompton puts it: Far Away “is a tiny play but it is an immense one”. It has said all that it needed to say by 8.09pm and audiences can see the run time when they book.
Critics say Far Away is too expensive for what you get,and on the other hand they say some shows are just too expensive to be classed as theatre. The latter are the epic plays, which we have seen such a rise of in recent years. We seem to be dealing in the extremes here, with two-part epics being very fashionable (to name two running at the moment: My Brilliant Friend and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child). And of course, you can bet your bottom dollar that anything with Tony Kushner’s name on it will be at least four hours long (I remember in 2017 queueing at 5am for tickets to his two-part play: Angels in America) Kushner’s adaptation of Friedrich Durrenmatt’s play ‘The Visit’ is currently playing at the National Theatre and has a run time of four hours with two intervals. Productions on this scale make theatre-going less of a night out and more of an all-encompassing experience, where you exit the theatre feeling completely discombobulated and not knowing what time of day it is. That’s what you pay for. So long as everyone knows what they are signing up for, I don’t think we should heed critics who say that anything worth saying can be conveyed within two hours and that the price should reflect that. As David Benedict wrote for The Stage, “The Visit is less of a play, more an extraordinary fable whose resonances need to unfold gently”. Although I haven’t seen this show, I feel exactly the same way about Angels in America, each silence, each weird and wonderful moment, culminated in me walking out of the theatre feeling like a different person. These shows are sliced up into bite-sized chunks, with no section being longer than an hour and a half. When attempting to grapple with such a long play, the intervals are a blessing in which you can try to complete the puzzle in your mind, slotting the information into some sort of order.
A play should only be as long as it needs to be. Practically speaking, epics are expensive, not commercially friendly and very few productions can sustain high theatrical quality for that long. However, as highlighted by the examples described above, we should never turn our noses up at shows because they do not fit into an idealised night-out-at-the-theatre-package. The minute we start putting restrictions on how long or short a show should be, we become the theatre police. Instead we should be looking at the quality of the art before us.
Intervals are social times and often a very meaningful element of the evening to spend time with those you came with, discuss Act 1 and for everyone to share thoughts. However, some consider it dangerous to allow your audience time to think before you have finished the story. If theatre were to take a leaf from the Netflix book, it might learn that the longer you leave the average person to think, the less likely they will be to play into your hands (which is why we are given little more than a second to stop the 58th episode playing). In this world of instant gratification, people find it very challenging to know how to spend time when they are not being entertained. Thank goodness for Instagram which can easily distract until the second half curtain goes up. This leads me to another question: should we ban phones in the theatre? In fact, this question was raised in The Stage this week: Should West End theatres follow Madonna’s lead and remove access to audience members phones during a show? Discuss.
The argument behind not allowing viewers to contemplate the in-depth issues of a show until the end can hardly be applied to feel-good musicals, but maybe it can be taken seriously with hardcore plays. I am inclined to think that this is an elitist artist train of thought and thoroughly underestimates the audience as rational beings who can manage their own thoughts at every stage of the process. Theatre is telling a story and allowing the viewer to think about the world in a different way, but by no means should it ever dictate opinions. In fact, having a break to digest the information can mean that the viewers take more from the whole experience.
The rise of fringe theatre is a significant factor in the disappearing interval. There have, of course, always been off West End shows, but the path from fringe to plush red seats is gradually becoming easier to navigate. The most recent example that springs to mind is Richard Gadd’s ‘Baby Reindeer’ (read review here) which is about to start a run at the Ambassadors Theatre, having been at the Edinburgh Fringe in August 2019. This is a seventy-minute piece and I do believe, having seen it twice, it would suffer from the insertion of a twenty-minute ice cream break.
So: to interval or not to interval? My general advice would probably be to avoid any section being longer than ninety minutes: There are very few shows which are captivating enough to stop people from looking at their watch for that long. Even I feel a little trapped in the middle of a row at the start of a lengthy chunk of a show and so it must be impossible for those who feel actively uncomfortable with the unrealistic high standards of theatre etiquette. I might not have a definite answer, but I do wholeheartedly agree with David Benedict’s article in The Stage this week, in which he discussed the idea that “duration is never the yardstick of quality”.
Confession time: Who has ever left a play at the interval, and why?