Our project to measure audience responses to Titus Andronicus in the theatre, cinema and virtual reality shows Shakespeare still has the power to shock.

During the Stratford-upon-Avon run of Titus Andronicus, we worked with Ipsos MORI on a project to measure the emotional impact of Shakespeare's goriest revenge tragedy on different audiences.

By recording the heart rates of audience members watching the same performance either in the theatre, at the cinema, or as part of a 360-filmed virtual reality (VR) experience, we found that Shakespeare can still cause strong emotional reactions today, regardless of the medium.

The number of times heart rate peaked was roughly the same for all three groups, hitting the level of a cardio workout for about 3% of the performance time. Men were also found to have a slightly greater emotional response than women.

A woman stands over three people: a man holding the throat of another woman, who in turn is holding the bleeding body of another man.
One of the many bloody scenes from the 2017 production, making it the perfect play for this study.
Photo by Helen Maybanks © RSC Browse and license our images

The theatrical performance still won the day in terms of overall positive feedback and engagement, but 91% of the VR audience felt at times like they were physically present in the theatre and the cinema audience found the show significantly more 'moving', showing the different strengths of the three platforms.

Our Director of Digital Development Sarah Ellis 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."

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