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JULIAN BIRD STEPS DOWN FROM SOLT/UK THEATRE
Just yesterday, I was quoting the response of Julian Bird, joint CEO of SOLT and UK Theatre back in September after I wrote to him expressing my concern at the general lack of COVID safety enforcement in theatres. Clearly diplomacy and marshalling opposing views is a key part of his job, as he replied,
“I am aware of your strong feelings on this issue – others have strong opinions too. The legal framework here in the UK is very different to other countries, and we continue to discuss all points of view – we will ensure your views are fed into the discussions.”
That discussion, of course, has taken a sudden urgency with the arrival of the Omicron variant, whose likely impact is, of course, as yet unknown; but even London commuters are suddenly taking notice.Yes, it had already been government mandated that they wear masks on the tube; but no one was abiding by that rule. Last night, I noticed pretty much everyone was doing so, on a short trip from Earl’s Court to Leicester Square and back again.
While SOLT and UK Theatre have still not called for an industry-wide policy on whether audiences should also be mandated to wear masks or not, this week has seen many venues — from the RSC and National to ENO and Royal Opera House — bringing in their own regulations unilaterally on this, as has always been in their power, so SOLT/UK Theatre’s insistence that there was no legal framework for venues setting their own rules of admission is untrue.I’ve frequently dubbed this (on Twitter and in my columns here) as a failure of leadership; and yesterday, too, it was announced that Julian Bird is stepping down from his role at the helm of SOLT and UK Theatre.
In a statement, he said, “It had always been my intention to think about moving on around the 10th anniversary of my time in the role, which would have been in November 2020. As with so much, the pandemic intervened in that. However by May 2022 I will have been CEO for over 11 and a half years, and then feels the right time to depart.”
He will preside over another Olivier Awards ceremony, of which he is executive producer, for an 11th time before he departs, an event he has transformed from a cosy, industry-facing orgy of self-congratulation into an event that has real stature, moving it to London’s grandest of all public spaces, the Royal Albert Hall, and bringing back national television coverage too (as well as a live radio broadcast).
But meanwhile there are still nearly 6 months to get through until he leaves; and I hope that SOLT/UK Theatre can act more decisively than they have hitherto in leading the industry through a very challenging time Bird is, no doubt, not personally to blame here: I’m sure he’s assailed by many contradictory views, as his e-mail reply to me suggests, from different quarters. And there are many opposing commerical views on the impact of restrictions, and how to actually implement them.
Even when there IS a definite legal framework for insisting on particular requirements, as there are in Wales, for example, venues seem to find it hard to act sometimes.
According to a story on Wales Online, a consultan tanaesthesiologist at the Cardiff and Vale University Hospital said that coronavirus rules around mask wearing were not being followed when he visited Cardiff’s Wales Millennium Centre a week ago (to attend a performance of Grease), forcing him to leave the venue due to feeling uncomfortable.
He said he deemed the “entire environment that myself and the public were exposed to as profoundly unsafe.”
According to the report, “The doctor claims he approached several members of staff to question why the rules were not being enforced, claiming: “It is obvious that the employees are systematically disempowered to actually ensure the safe operation of the venue. There was mere reference to the relevant announcements and otherwise helpless shoulder-shrugging.”
This is, of course, the next frontier in dealing with the rules when they’re flouted; I can see, as in shops, that it is not necessarily the job of the already underpaid theatre staff to enforce it. And bringing in outside security, of course, is an additional cost
I was recently in New York, though, and there was literally 100% compliance; the audience KNEW that this was a condition of entry — one they’d had to sign up to when they bought their tickets — and simply followed the rules.
If only life were that simple in Britain….
ENO KICKS OFF A NEW RING CYCLE
i was at the London Coliseum last night — one of my very favourite venues in all of London — for THE VALKYRIE, a new production by director Richard Jones of the Wagner epic, that requires a massive commitment from audiences: the evening runs more than five hours. Yet the auditorium was, if not sold out, pretty full on all levels; and it was wonderful to see such a large audience turning out to attend a performance that started at 5pm.
And it was also wonderful to see them all masked — as now required by ENO — for the full five hours, too. It proves it can be done.
The production itself — though scenically rather bare (not helped by a fire effect being banned by Westminster Council), but musically rich, with stunning vocal performances (especially from Nicky Spence’s Siegmund and Matthew Rose’s Wotan) and the massed ranks of the ENO orchestra under ENO musical director Martin Brabben (pictured below: four harpists, positioned in the stage right box).
I ran into director Ramin Gray there, who was surprised to see me there; it goes to prove that people shouldn’t make assumptions about others! In fact, I host regular talks for ENO with the company and creative team of new productions for ENO benefactors, so the company is actually a regular part of my life.
TODAY’S THEATRE BIRTHDAYS
Theatre birthdays (DEC 2): Brendan Coyle, 58 (pic: in SHINING CITY at Stratford East Theatre Royal in 2021); Alfred Enoch, 33 (pictured: in RED in West End in 2018)
SEE YOU TOMORROW
See you in your inbox tomorrow. But if you can’t wait that long, you can find me on Twitter @ShentonStage (though not as often on weekends)