Shakespeare still has power to shock

The Royal Shakespeare Company, in collaboration with Ipsos MORI, ran an innovative project to monitor the emotional engagement of a theatre and cinema audience.

Shakespeare still has power to shock

The author(s)

  • Dr. Pippa Bailey Ipsos Marketing, UK
  • Richard Garnham Ipsos, UK
Get in touch

Titus Andronicus is renowned for being Shakespeare’s goriest revenge tragedy.  During the Stratford-upon-Avon run of the production the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), in collaboration with Ipsos MORI, ran an innovative project to monitor the emotional engagement of a theatre and cinema audience.

As part of the RSC’s continued exploration into new ways of experiencing theatre, the project was further extended, with a group of participants viewing a 360 filmed VR experience of the production, created by Gorilla In The Room, via VR headsets (HTC Vive).

Sarah Ellis, RSC Director of Digital Development said:

This presented a unique opportunity for us to compare the emotional reaction to one of Shakespeare’s plays on three different platforms. The results have shown us that even after more than 400 years, Shakespeare’s work still packs an emotional punch to today’s audiences wherever and however it is experienced. This was a great way to continue our work to find new ways for theatre to be experienced, and to help us ensure that live theatre performance remains relevant in the 21st century and beyond.

Dr Pippa Bailey, Head of Innovation at Ipsos MORI said:

This unique study has allowed us to understand the parallels and differences that theatre, cinema and a 360º filmed VR can bring. Specifically, this research will allow us to understand the potential that VR can bring to truly replicate reality and understand how people respond, what they attend to and how they react. The potential applications in the research industry to better understand responses to different experiences, environments and stimuli are significant.

The results reveal how Shakespeare can still shock today’s audience and can provoke strong emotional reactions:

Shakespeare still shocks – as much in Cinema and in 360º as in the Theatre

Analysis of heart rate data from participants watching the same performance of Titus Andronicus under different conditions (Theatre, Live on screen in cinemas and the 360º filmed VR experience) demonstrated that the number of times the heart rate peaked above average was comparable in all three conditions across the performance.

There are more people with a raised heart rate in Theatre at the very start of the performance than we see for Cinema and 360º filmed VR experience - this is likely to be driven by higher levels of anticipation.

Watching Titus Andronicus raised heart rate to a level equivalent of a 5-minute cardio workout1

Audience heart rate is raised to the level of a cardio workout zone for an average of 5 minutes (3% of time) across the full performance of Titus Andronicus. This is consistent across participants in Theatre, Cinema and the 360º filmed VR experience.

Men showed a greater emotional reaction

The heart rate data of the men in the study suggests a very slightly greater increase in reaction compared to female participants.

360º filmed VR experience has the power to transport you into the theatre

91% of those watching the performance via the VR headset felt there were times when they were physically present in the theatre. This compares to approximately 63% for those watching the show live on screen in the cinema.

Theatre is the shared experience that brings humour to life

The interplay between actors and audience was most apparent regarding ‘humour’, mentioned spontaneously more by those watching in the Theatre. People were also significantly more likely to say that ‘it felt good to be sharing’ in Theatre as opposed to the those in the in cinema or 360º filmed VR experience.

Theatre wins out over cinema in overall positive engagement and empathy

Participant feedback indicated greater overall positivity (excellent/awesome etc.), engagement (gripping, thought provoking, empathy etc.) and shock in Theatre – with more attention to the elements of staging, costume, set, plot, music and choreography. Those watching via 360º filmed VR also had a higher level of emotional engagement than cinema audiences.

Lower shock levels in the cinema may indicate that viewers feel further removed/desensitised to the violence/gore.  However, cinema was perceived to be significantly more ‘moving’ than either theatre of 360º video - possibly due to the cinematic style directing the viewers eye to the details of actor expressions (e.g. tear rolling down Lavinia’s cheek) which are often missed by theatre audiences.

Technical Note

These results are based on the data from 107 participants.

All participants were invited to a briefing prior to the start of the performance (whether Theatre, Cinema or 360º filmed VR experience).  At the briefing session, each participant was fitted with a heart rate monitor before viewing the performance.  After the performance, each participant took part in a short exit interview which included capturing their responses to the performance – using a combination of video, explicit and implicit questions.

For the 360º filmed VR experience fieldwork specifically, each participant was looked after by a researcher for the duration of the session.  After being fitted with their HR monitor 360º VR video participants were taken to a room to view the performance. The 360º filmed VR experience was viewed by participants using HTC Vive VR headsets – the experience allowed participants to move their head and to view any aspect of the theatre, stage, audience as they wished (as if they were seated in that position at the theatre). 

The 360º filmed VR experience was viewed in 5 parts – rather than in 2 parts (as in Theatre and Cinema).  With 2 x 5 minute breaks in the first half, then the normal interval duration (as in Theatre and Cinema) and then one 5-minute break in the second half.

The 360º filmed VR experience was recorded using a high spec 4k 360° monoscopic camera rig. The output was two 360° films of the first and second halves of the play, which could be viewed in a in a 360° film viewer without a break if required. The filming was done from the front row of the auditorium and the camera was set at head height and was captured during a live performance of Titus Andronicus with a full audience. 

The filming and editing of the 360º filmed VR experience was by Gorilla In The Room.

Video responses were analysed using the Big Sofa platform.

Titus Andronicus runs at the Barbican in London from 7 December – 19 January.

Titus Andronicus is part of the RSC’s ROME MMXVII Season, which also includes Julius Caesar, Antony & Cleopatra and Coriolanus. The productions transfer to the Barbican from November 2017.


1Max Heart Rate is approx. 220 minus age – i.e. 180 bpm for a 40 year old. Cardio workout zone is approx. 50-85% of Max Heart Rate (so 90-153 bpm for a 40 year old).  Note: Analysis was conducted on an individual basis and then averaged.


The author(s)

  • Dr. Pippa Bailey Ipsos Marketing, UK
  • Richard Garnham Ipsos, UK

More insights about Culture

Media & Brand Communication