How some in the theatre, as in government, seek to put a new spin on the facts to re-write the narrative
There’s a shattering song in Ragtime, Ahrens and Flaherty’s gorgeously-scored 1998 Broadway musical Ragtime about changing cultural shifts at turn of the 20th century America, that has the defiant assertion: “We can never go back to before.”
And that is more true than ever right now, as we emerge from the multiple catastrophes of COVID around the world. While we currently seem to have contained it in Britain, it’s difficult to know definitively, not just because the virus is unpredictable and is capable of dangerous mutation, but because of the ‘spin’ that the government seems intent on putting on it.
There’s its determination, on the one hand, of sticking to Boris Johnson’s originally announced “irreversible” roadmap out of lockdown, but on the other hand effectively burying bad news of the severity of the dangers posed in COVID hotspots by not announcing them formally, but simply updating those areas on a website as places we were now advised to “avoid non-essential travel altogether” to visiting.
Thus they could legitimately claim to have warned us, and thus discharged their duty to keep us informed, thereby shifting the onus entirely on to us for staying safe. As the BBC’s Heath editor Hugh Pym put it in a column yesterday,
“Ministers say they want to shift from legal restrictions to public guidance as the roadmap progresses in England – in other words not using the law to dictate behaviour but giving the public enough information to allow them to moderate their own behaviour.”
But then yesterday a BJ spokesman (or should that be a spokesman for BJ’s BS), said: “We’ve updated the guidance online to make it clearer that these are not local restrictions and we do acknowledge the confusion this caused [on Tuesday].”
It’s all spin, and clear as mud, really. I wrote yesterday of the previous night’s cancellation, at 10 minutes notice, of a preview performance of Walden at the West End’s Harold Pinter Theatre. Press performances begin tonight for the play, and when I asked Sonia Friedman Productions press representative whether these might be affected, I was told: “I think it unlikely there will be an issue with performances – they was a possible exposure to a case outside the building, so not a case, or even a suspected case. The action taken last night was a precautionary measure.”
It seems a big step to have taken to cancel the show just on the possibility of an exposure somewhere else — especially given the current state of uncertainty the industry is in. This will have caused massive anxiety for everyone — not least audiences wondering if it is safe to book.
So the production, like the government and those pesky hotspots, duly updated their own advice and explanation, with a new statement:
“Since rehearsals began for Walden all protocols and guidelines have been strictly followed in the rehearsal room and at the theatre, with the health and well-being of the company and team working across the production being the upmost priority. Throughout this period they have all been tested regularly, and all remain negative for Covid. Last night, information was received at 6.45pm that a member of the production had potentially been exposed to the virus whilst not at the theatre, and on the advice of the production’s Covid consultants the performance was cancelled. In the intervening time, following further testing, advice, and confirmation that there was no exposure to the virus by the team member, all remain negative, safe and well. and we look forward to welcoming audiences back as performances resume as normal this evening. We’d like to thank last night’s audience for their patience and support – they will be contacted by their point of sale.”
But of course what happens in these circumstances is that it is so much easier to shoot the messenger. On Twitter, one person responded to my column yesterday in this way:
Of course it is frustrating for the industry — as it is for the residents of those hotspots — that the messaging keeps changing. We are in a fluid, evolving situation. But there’s no point going into denial mode. And yes, of course it’s right that no one is forcing anyone to go to the theatre. Perhaps people need to assume personal responsibility for assuming that risk.
But this does remind me of the crazy situation that happened after the parts of roof of the Apollo Theatre fell in during a performance (the aftermath of which is pictured above), injuring many theatregoers sitting below (but fortunately no fatalities), back in 2013. SOLT went into immediate damage limitation mode, insisting that all West End theatres were safe to attend and all had been approved as such by the authorities. But the same thing would have been true to say of the Apollo the day before the accident.
The new evidence of our eyes that perhaps they weren’t all so safe after all was irrelevant; it was surely scaremongering to suggest otherwise. And the same is true now that a performance was actually cancelled, but now we were being told it was purely precautionary and to suggest otherwise was to find myself accused of being scaremongering.