September 4: Theatre’s maskless return

Mark ShentonInclude in homepage slide?, Thought of the day2 Comments

I’m on holiday — or at any rate in hotel quarantine, before my holiday can actually begin — in Barbados, and I was determined not to write any columns while here. But given that I’m stuck in my room with nothing much to do, I am writing this, as it has been interesting to come away to somewhere that takes COVID safety really seriously — after weeks since “freedom day” in Britain have proved that the West End simply does not.

When social distancing was dropped and theatres were allowed to re-open at full capacity, SOLT and UK Theatres CEO Julian Bird hailed it as “a lifeline for the industry.” He expressed the hope that audience would continue to wear masks, but it was not to be made a condition of entry. No rules were specified about what testing proof would be required, either: each venue made up its own rules about whether it would ask for vaccination status or a recent negative COVID test.

I have been to many shows in the weeks since. Some of these have been on opening nights, and it has been depressing to sit in packed houses, surrounded by theatre professionals — actors and producers — who are simply not wearing masks. I won’t name and shame here, but they have included some prominent figures. And if they won’t take this seriously, why should audiences?

But this week Broadway returned to business too. And audiences there are being bound by a series of rules they need to sign up to that include proof of vaccination and obligatory mask wearing.


The same applies on stage and behind-the-scenes. American Actors Equity are requiring actors and crew to be fully vaccinated as a condition of work. Again, in the UK, SOLT and Equity are not requiring this. Regular testing is deemed sufficient.

And it is inevitably igniting firestorms, on both sides of the fence, with libertarian, vaccine-denying (or just hesitant) actors refusing to be vaccinated, and claims that it is a matter of personal choice.

But keeping others safe is not a personal choice but a personal responsibility. No, vaccines don’t stop people catching COVID — but they seriously mitigate the effects of doing so. And basically it is all of our collective responsibilities to render this virus as ineffective as we can. Viruses will do anything they can to survive — hence the mutations. We need to do everything we can do to stop them doing so.

However, the West End and regional theatres have re-opened with neither audiences nor cast members required to do ANYTHING at all.

With COVID spreading rampantly through the community once again (see above for yesterday’s statistics on new infections and deaths), it is surely in the theatre’s collective interest to stop this — so we don’t have to face another lockdown. But it seems that SOLT and its member producers are more intent on keeping their theatres open today, never mind what is going to happen tomorrow.

But flying to Barbados proved just how well the airline industry has already adapted to the new world order. For starters, vaccination certificates and a current PCR test are required before boarding a flight — and these are checked BEFORE check-in (see above). So everyone who boards the flight is already known to be recently negative.

And once on board, you are reminded that it is a condition of carriage to wear your mask through the flight. Anyone who doesn’t may be denied future travel on the airline.

Finally, on arrival in Barbados, notwithstanding the negative tests we had before we left, the authorities re-tested EVERYONE; we were then despatched our hotels, to await the results in our rooms. During this time, we are NOT allowed to leave them at all. Food can be ordered via room service, which is delivered to your door (by someone wearing a mask, of course).

As I write, it is two days since we landed — and we are still waiting. Our neighbours, who by sheer coincidence include a young London theatre and film producer, who immediately recognised me when we spoke across the patch of grass in front of our rooms (we are both on the ground floor), arrived on Wednesday. They are still waiting, too.

This may not exactly be a way to encourage tourism to the island — but at least they’re taking the COVID threat seriously.

If only UK theatres were doing the same. Henry Filloux-Bennett, playwright and Chief Executive and Artistic Director of Huddersfield’s Lawrence Batley Theatre,  insisted on Twitter:

A conversation ensued in which he suggested that as a critic I have no right to an opinion here, even though as I’ve pointed out theatres are my workplace, just as they are for actors and crew. But according to him, at least, the theatres know best — and are doing everything to mitigate risks. Except, of course, actually mitigating them.

It strikes me that there has been a major failure of leadership here: SOLT have failed to take the lead and Equity have failed, too. What’s been sacrificed in the process is the safety of everyone — cast, crew and audiences alike.