All eyes may be on Martin Freeman when he brings Shakespeare's Machiavellian Richard III to life on stage - but for traditional theatregoers, the very worst villains are in the audience.
Fans of the Hobbit star have been accused of breaching theatre etiquette by cheering the actor's very first scene, during which he delivers the soliloquy starting, "Now is the winter of our discontent ... ".
Conventionally, audiences break into applause only at the beginning of the interval and at the final curtain.
However, enthusiastic Hobbit fans, many of whom are first-time theatre-goers, have been accused of ruining some of Shakespeare's most spellbinding moments with their "annoying" and "disruptive" bursts of applause.
One audience member, theatre blogger Claire Dikecoglu, said: "After the opening monologue some fans tried to kick off clapping and cheering, which I found to be disruptive and unnecessary. There are strong views on this, but I was irritated when the audience interrupted the flow of the play to clap and cheer Martin's first scene."
Miss Dikecoglu, who was sitting in the front row for the show's preview at London's Trafalgar Studios, added: "While I am not a traditionalist in terms of dramaturgy, I do believe in proper theatre etiquette.
"I understand that Martin Freeman is popular, but I have no bigger pet peeve than everything getting standing ovations these days."
Celebrated actress Dame Eileen Atkins agreed that applauding someone during the middle of a production was "wrong".
She said: "It ultimately breaks the spell of the story. I think that what is happening is because of the success of The Hobbit. Martin Freeman is attracting a different kind of audience who are not used to the theatre."
Maureen Lipman, who is about to star in the West End production of Daytona, also blamed the over-zealous applause on the fact that Freeman's starring role in The Hobbit trilogy had attracted a much younger audience to the show.
"Martin Freeman's face is on every bus in London," she said. "The producers are going out to find the The Hobbit audience. They are spending a fortune to target them.
"The director tweeted the other day about the fact that the first two rows could expect to find themselves spattered in fake blood. They are aiming for people who spend most of their day with wire in their ears. It's not so much Richard III as Richard the rock concert."
But Oscar-winning dramatist Christopher Hampton, one of Britain's most successful playwrights, said: "Attracting first-time theatregoers is the holy grail as far as we are all concerned. We want them to come as much as possible.
"I love it when people applaud in the middle of the play," he said. "I am all for people having a good time in the theatre and if they want to express themselves like that, I don't see any harm in it."
Freeman was unavailable for comment, but Richard III director Jamie Lloyd said: "The show's standing ovations have been instant, to reward the entire cast, not just Martin."
- Daily Mail