Shakespeare still shocks, says emotion survey

Steve Orme

Shakespeare still has the power to shock—just as much in the cinema and virtual reality as the theatre, according to new research.

Those are the findings of a project to monitor the emotional engagement of audiences which was carried out during the Stratford run of the Royal Shakespeare Company production of Shakespeare’s goriest tragedy Titus Andronicus.

Market opinion and research company Ipsos MORI teamed up with the RSC as part of its exploration into new ways of experiencing theatre.

A group of 107 people saw Titus Andronicus: some watched it live, others saw it in a cinema and a third group viewed a VR version of the performance via headsets.

Data demonstrated that the number of times the heart rate peaked above average was comparable in all three conditions, raising the heart rate to a level equivalent to a five-minute cardio workout.

Feedback indicated greater engagement and shock in the theatre, with more attention to the elements of staging, costume, set, plot, music and choreography. Those watching via VR had a higher level of emotional engagement than cinema audiences.

Cinema was perceived to be significantly more “moving” than either theatre or 360 video, possibly due to the cinematic style directing the viewer’s eye to actor expressions, such as a tear rolling down Lavinia’s cheek which might be missed by a theatre audience.

Sarah Ellis, the RSC’s director of digital development, said, “the results have shown us that even after more than 400 years, Shakespeare’s work still packs an emotional punch wherever and however it’s experienced.

“This was a great way to help us ensure that live theatre performance remains relevant in the 21st century and beyond.”