February 22: Out of lockdown, but what next?

Mark ShentonInclude in homepage slide?, Thought of the dayLeave a Comment

Today Boris Johnson will be announcing the beginnings of our way out of lockdown. I don’t think we should hold our breaths for any fast return to theatre, though; having been over-confident in getting business back to “normal” before (urged by his Chancellor, who bizarrely even did a stint as an unmasked Wagamama’s waiter to promote his Eat Out to Help Out scheme, pictured above, which was subsequently found to be not so much an economic-generator as a viral one, contributing to the second wave), he’s unlikely to be quite so rash.

Meanwhile, however, too many commentators are urging that Johnson actually set a timetable:

Setting a timetable requires Johnson to be a clairvoyant, predicting the future way of a virus that, to be honest, is only really getting started. Yes, vaccines are being done fast (I got my first dose on Saturday), but lifting the lid on Pandora’s box too quickly — by setting a timetable for reopening — won’t benefit anyone’s mental health, if it simply exacerbates the virus and leads to the necessity to shut down again.

And the economic consequences of a stop-start theatrical economy are too awful to contemplate; all the producers who did in the December rush to open lost a lot of money doing so. No wonder that last week saw another cascade of productions announcing their postponements, yet again: the planned revival of CP Taylor’s Good, originally scheduled for last October when it was due to run at the Playhouse Theatre, then moved due to begin performances at the Pinter Theatre from April 21 for a 12 week run to July 17 starring David Tennant, is being rescheduled again to a yet-to-be-announced future date; Get Up, Stand Up!, the new Bob Marley musical that was originally due to open at the Lyric on June 16, following previews from May 28, now plans to open on October 20, following previews from October 1, as tweeted here; while Sister Act, originally due to run at the Eventim Apollo this summer from July 20 to August 29, has moved its dates to next summer, when it will run from July 19 to August 28 — but without its originally announced headliner Whoopi Goldberg in the cast, as revealed here:

In a statement, Goldberg — who is also a co-producer — stated,

“Sister Act is near and dear to my heart and I’m disappointed that I will be unable to perform in this production under the circumstances. However, my producing partners and I will continue to work towards mounting a fantastic production, with an amazing new cast and we look forward to presenting it when it can be done safely for everyone onstage, behind the scenes and in the audience.”

And there’s the rub: far better to wait — even if its a full year — than rush to open it sooner, and risk everything.

Writing in The Stage last week, arts consultant James Doeser wrote about a project he did in 2019 called Contagious Cities, that was surprisingly prescient for where we find ourselves now.

The project made clear how the modern world of busy and mobile populations living closely together was an epidemiological tinderbox. Nobody had heard of Covid back then. A common reaction from audiences was to be shocked or repulsed when they learned that, despite all the advances of modern science, we remain a mortal and vulnerable species who share this planet (and our own bodies) with some very hostile organisms.

And he continued:

Our big problem is that if we want to eliminate risk then we are in for a miserable life. The mission for epidemiologists is how to prevent the spread of disease. The rest of us have to work out how to live a full and fun life in a pandemic. It’s been the policy of the UK and most other nations to suspend live theatre and other forms of congregational culture, in large part to protect the elderly and other vulnerable groups.

Almost everyone has some experience of navigating the fun/risk trade-off. Anyone who has been skiing, rock climbing, taken drugs, ridden a bicycle or had sex with another person knows life is there for living and we can only hope that, overall, the pleasure is worth the trouble. Same goes for our cultural lives. Time will tell whether opting for an abstinence-only approach to the performing arts was a wise or fair move.

But he nails his own colours to the mast when he concludes:

“My view is that if culture is worth anything then it’s worth taking a risk for. The task ahead is to determine what is a reasonable level of risk. If we’re waiting for ‘safety’ then we’ll be waiting forever.”

The last year has taught me that life without theatre for me is very, very different. And I do crave a return to the joy of the live experience. But I also don’t want to rush back and watch the virus running rampant again, as it did in America, where Covid denialism and trying to put the economy first ran riot thanks to Donald Trump.

Let’s see what effect the vaccines have. And whether they can be tweaked, if required, for the new variants that are emerging. Until then, it may still be a risk too far.

Of course, theatre producers are first and foremost businessmen and women, and like all consumer-facing businesses, they need their stores to be open in order to be able to trade. No wonder they wish to project an image of optimism that business can and will return sooner rather than later.

Last week, one such producer Kevin McCollum, who is based in New York but has a foothold in the West End to which his productions have regularly transferred, told the Evening Standard that he expected the West End to bounce back faster than Broadway.

According to the story,

A mixture of more widespread mask wearing in the UK and the way West End theatres were built should help London’s famous venues to reopen first, he predicted. He said: “Your theatres were built with a little more bar space, shall we say, that can maybe help create a little bit more distancing.”

Except, have you ever been in those bars in pre-pandemic years? There may be more space — but there’s also far more customers clamouring for a drink. (On Broadway, the lack of physical space — and the outrageous bar prices — are both major deterrents).

And another key factor in viral spread is ventilation — and again, while every single Broadway theatre have industrial-strength air-conditioning (the kind that requires you always carry a jacket to the theatre at the height of the summer, or face the prospect of freezing to death) that no doubt help aid ventilation (or alternatively help to spread a virus even more quickly), the air in many London theatres is completely stagnant; air conditioning is still an afterthought here, with lots of them desperately uncomfortable in the summer months. I’d not be hurrying back in those conditions either.

Finally, some interesting tweets of the last week:

  • A footnote to last week’s story that the Duke and Duchess of Sussex will be withdrawing from all official royal duties was that this included their royal patronages, which for Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, included taking over from the Queen as patron of the National Theatre in 2019.

The National duly announced this on Friday; and one NT patron tweets in reply:

Richard Palmer, the Daily Express’s royal correspondent, tweeted this on Wednesday:

  • And Equity’s new secretary general Paul W Fleming was making much of the news last week when some of his celebrity members sent an open letter to the Prime Minister asking him to negotiate new terms with the EU to enable creative workers “to travel to the EU visa-free for work, and for our European counterparts to be able to do the same in the UK”. Except that Fleming had himself lobbied hard for Leave. He insists that he was always in favour of free movement being maintained; but given that the main focus of the Leave campaign was curtailing precisely this, it feels a little late to now be arguing that it wasn’t what he intended after all.

This tweet says it all: