We may be on lockdown in the UK, with every theatre in the land fully shut down; but there’s more real-life drama playing out on the streets of the US capital to keep me up at night. Literally.
This week I was up at 3am on Wednesday to tune into the incoming results of the Georgia play-off election that, by the end of that day, confirmed that both Democratic contenders had won out over their GOP rivals and with it, the Senate was back in Democratic party hands. So Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell will now become Senate Minority leader, for which much grateful thanks, given the amount of disruption and hypocrisy he would bring to obstructing Joe Biden; who also coincidentally dealt him a killer blow by announcing Garland Merrick as his Attorney General.
Merrick, of course, was the judge whom McConnell wouldn’t bring a hearing in the Senate to confirm to the Supreme Court during Barack Obama’s last year, saying it was only right and proper that in the last year of a president’s term the appointment should properly wait until after the next presidential election, yet he then rushed through Amy Coney Barrett’s appointment that then took effect from literally just days before the November election.
And then yesterday I was up at 4am, watching the crazy events that had played out at the DC’s Capitol building (pictured below) — the equivalent to our Houses of Parliament — as Trump supporters, urged by him at a nearby rally to “fight and take back our country”, surged towards and broke through police security to disrupt that day’s confirmation hearings of the electoral college votes, that Trump again had been pressurising his vice-president Mike Pence to reject and reinstate him as President for another term instead.
This is history happening in front of our very eyes, as startling as it also feels inevitable. It’s as significant, but also much more predictable, as the fall of Berlin Wall or the Twin Towers. It was like watching a new political thriller. Who needs Netflix? During the first lockdown, I watched all of Designated Survivor, in which an honourable man tries to reign in a dystopian America when he becomes President by default when the entirety of Congress is wiped out in a deadly attack on the Capitol that totally destroys it; Wednesday’s riots there didn’t destroy it, but it certainly provided an alarming portrait of an anarchistic uprising, one that been actively encouraged by the President§.
As Julian Borger wrote in a Guardian commentary piece on the day’s events,
“It was Wednesday afternoon, 6 January, when Donald Trump’s four-year assault on US democracy reached its inescapable destination, an orgy of violence aimed at the heart of the republic.” And he went on to write, “When the defeated president was first sworn into office almost four years ago, he raised the spectre of ‘American carnage’. He portrayed it as something that had gone before, but it very soon became clear it was what was still to come. As Trump has made clear for months, he has been prepared to wreak carnage on the political system that elevated him to the most powerful office, if it ever threatened to spit him out.”(Guardian, January 7, 2021)
But spit it out it now has. And then the truly unthinkable happened: Twitter and Facebook/Instagram, which so enabled and amplified his divisive messaging, banned him, for 12 hours and 24 hours respectively (in the case of the latter pairing, the ban has since been extended “indefinitely and for at least the next two weeks until the peaceful transition of power is complete, according to a statement posted by Mark Zuckerberg personally). Twitter actually removed three of his tweets, instead of merely flagging them with notices saying that their claims were disputed, and the threat of a permanent suspension from Twitter was also made.
It’s certainly the case that no real-life political storyline has ever simultaneously gripped and appalled me as much as the unfolding chaos of the Trump regime has. For the last five years, from the time he first declared his intention of running for the President, to becoming the Republican candidate then winner, I’ve become a compulsive consumer of news, subscribing to both the New York Times and Washington Post for years now.
Trump himself has said what a beneficiary of the interest in him he has been to the press he has routinely derided as “an enemy of the people”, but writers like the hilarious Gail Collins, Michelle Goldberg, Paul Krugman and Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times have become even more essential reading to me than its recently retired theatre critic Ben Brantley and Jesse Green, while The Guardian’s DC bureau chief David Smith has also been an essential guide to this terrible time (Back in the day David used to cover the arts beat in London, so I knew him then; and I’ll never forget his commitment to theatre that — despite his position in The Guardian that might have enabled him to cut the queue — he actually joined the overnight line to get tickets for David Tennant’s Hamlet).
It sometimes feels like the entire world has been stuck in an abusive relationship with Trump, one we can’t shake ourselves free from, however hard we try. But that moment is, finally, looking tantalisingly close.
And sometimes, just sometimes, we can only laugh (or we’d cry).
In other (less upsetting) news, the annual Stage 100 list was published yesterday, and with it, for the 11th year, the winners of The Stage Awards. The Stage 100 list was historically a recognition of what the award judges felt were the 100 currently most influential people in British theatre, from theatre owners and producers to artistic directors, actors and activists. For many years, I participated as one of the judges on the panel that decided them; and one of the hardest tasks usually was not so much who to put in the list but who to leave out. Given that the list came with its own inbuilt ceiling of 100 entries, we had to do a lot of horse-trading to honour the right cross-section of the people who make British theatre what it is.
Even though it was inevitably a subjective as opposed to scientific grading of those people — though only the top 20 were actually numbered in order — a lot of people took it very seriously, and theatres and producers, in particular, felt the recognition — or lack thereof — very keenly. To be included in the list made you a ‘player’; a figure of influence. Of course, there was invariably little movement at the very top of the pyramid; for a number of years the number one spot swung from Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh to Sonia Friedman and ATG’s original founders Howard Panter and Rosemary Squire.
But this year The Stage decided, inevitably, to do things differently, as this has been a year in the theatre like no other. The traditional markers of influence and power have shifted as most theatres have been shut down for most of the year.
The list, published yesterday, instead celebrates — in the words of the press release announcing them — is intended to “celebrate individuals who have gone above and beyond in helping theatre survive the biggest crisis the industry has ever faced.”
“This year’s list is not ranked by order of power or influence, but is instead divided into five areas. These areas represent the ways in which theatre has responded to the Coronavirus pandemic. The five areas are: Putting on Shows, Lobbying and Campaigning, Fundraising, Serving the Community and Support and Development.”
And in a nice touch — which covers the sins of omission — they’ve said: “This year’s list only includes 99 entries to indicate that the judging panel considers it to be incomplete. The final space is left for all the other theatremakers who have done extraordinary and inspiring things in the face of huge adversity during 2020.”
I’m sure there are more, but there are already some apparently glaring omissions. Cameron Mackintosh (pictured above), who has always held a prime spot in the past as a major theatre owner and producer, was entirely missing, which can only be read as deliberate, a rebuke to his inaction across the year. The West End companies of all his shows were laid off; staff at his West End theatres were furloughed and suspended.
He did end the year by (briefly) bringing back Les Miserables in the concert version he previously tailored for a run at the Gielgud in 2019 while the Queen’s Theatre was being transformed into the Sondheim. But although it quickly sold out — at ticket prices that reached £150 each — savings were made on both rent (he robbed Peter to pay Paul, by waiving the rent on his own theatre) and salaries, owing to the necessary reduction on seating capacity to comply with Covid safety rules. He commented at the time it was announced,
“The authors and theatre have waived their royalties and rent to give the show a chance to break even and our leading artists have all agreed to work for appreciably less than their normal salaries. With such a big spectacular show it is a risk, but with manageable production costs and a short run it is not a catastrophic one.”
More serious omissions, it could be argued, is recognition in the list for any Wales-based organisation or person apart from Theatr Clwyd, which was also anointed Regional Theatre of the Year in The Stage Awards that were also announced yesterday. Accepting the award, artistic director Tamara Harvey and executive director Liam Evans-Ford (pictured above) commented,
“It’s been a deeply challenging year across the sector. At a time when we’ve not been able to sell tickets or tell stories on our stages, we have tried to use our skills to help people in our local community and our wider artistic community. We’ve always known that our team was pretty amazing but this year have proved it beyond any imagining, and this is all about them.”The Stage, January 7, 2021
The Stage’s own citation said, “In 2020, Theatr Clwyd has been more than a theatre: it has been a beacon, one that won the hearts and trust of the many communities it serves,” as the theatre became a blood-donation centre, offered support to freelance artists, and held an outdoor season of performances, as well as producing online streaming content.
And also on the lobbying front, it’s bizarre that arguably the loudest voice warning, not of COVID19, but the threat to British actors, creatives and musicians of the consequences of Brexit was also missing: Howard Goodall, the composer and presenter who has spent much of the last year warning of the dangers it poses. Maybe everyone’s just in denial.