Michael Sheen wants you to turn your phone off (and I do too)

Michael Sheen in Under Milk Wood. Photo: John Persson.

Michael Sheen is mid-speech, mid-performance, on the Olivier Stage at the National Theatre, surrounded by the cast of Under Milk Wood.

Music starts, low at first but rising as Sheen’s speech rises with it. But something is wrong – the music doesn’t match what is being said.

This music is not part of the performance, it’s a ringtone – the fifth time I’ve heard a phone ring during the 45 minutes or so that I’ve been trying to enjoy this matinee performance.

And that isn’t counting the numerous ‘pings’ of notifications. Text messages, WhatsApps, Facebook notifications (and NHS self-isolation notifications?).

The phone rings on as Sheen continues. Like the last four times, this person isn’t even bothered about turning it off, they’re just letting it ring on. Then Sheen stops mid-sentence on the word ‘listen’ and turns to face the centre of the crowd:

“I’m asking all of you now to turn your phones off,” he requests, more politely than I would manage after this many interruptions in such a short time.

“We haven’t waited this long to be in a theatre to listen to your phones. Turn them off. I’ll wait.”*

Applause and cheering bursts out across the auditorium. Sheen is frustrated, as is every single audience member who has, again, had a theatre moment interrupted by an unwanted phone.

It’s an applause full of relief – someone is saying something on our behalf. I can’t stand onstage and ask those unruly audience members to be quiet but Sheen can and he’s doing it for me, and the couple beside me, and the man behind me, and the three ladies in front of me, and his fellow cast members, and the backstage crew, and the front of house – everyone who has made the show or paid their hard earned cash to come and see it.

The phone is silenced and the play continues.

I’ve had so many productions ruined by rude audience members, so thank you Michael Sheen for taking a stand.

*I thought he said ‘I haven’t waited’ but others have tweeted that he said ‘we haven’t waited’, so I’ll bow to the consensus view, although I thought he was referring both to pandemic closures and his decade away from the stage

Update: Sheen has confirmed that he did indeed say ‘we’ in a Tweeted reply to this blog:

Thanks for this Jim. I did indeed say ‘we’. I felt terrible for coming out of the play and breaking the illusion but it was happening so often I felt it had to be addressed as it was spoiling the experience for everyone. https://t.co/ilXF1mOchm

— michael sheen 💙 (@michaelsheen) July 9, 2021