The future of the arts: ‘Online theatre is a skeleton of the thing itself’ | Stage


Not ill, bereaved or penniless. Although dependent for my living on the performing arts – a sector so savaged by lockdown that it is at risk of permanent mutilation – I have so far been fortunate. I am as yet physically unscathed. Merely topsy-turvy. 

Lockdown made me see the point of Salvador Dalí’s melted clocks. I am in the same room as I was before the theatres went dark. Yet without the night job, boundaries quickly went woozy, with a disconcerting mixture of torpor and intensity. No theatre means no weekly deadlines and no limit to each day. No changing into critic’s clothes at 5pm, no setting off to work as my neighbours return home. It means not seeing those critical versions of office and colleagues: foyers and theatre bars and the well-known backs of reviewing necks. It means no automatic shift of gear in the evening: no being snatched away into a playwright’s mind; no being taken into a different space by a designer. It is as if part of the dreamscape had been stolen.

At the same time, daily life has taken on a theatrical aspect. Its range has shrunk but it is often lit luridly, by flares of alarms and political rage. The rearrangements have been like those of someone preparing a dinky but desolate one-person show. New costumes: masks and gloves. New props: hand sanitisers. New expressions: eye-work above the masks. New choreography: snaking around the rest of the cast on pavements. And a new emphasis on sound design. Not only do I hear more – blackbirds’ melodious bellowing, neighbours’ arguments – without the muffle of traffic and planes. The last time I spent so much time on the phone I was a teenager whispering into the family apparatus in the hall.

Plays have not disappeared. They are everywhere – apart from on the stage. Transmuted. The ingenuity of companies and individuals has been astonishing. Podcasts from The Lockdown Plays of new work by, among others, Caryl Churchill and Simon Stephens. The entire cycle of Shakespeare’s sonnets read, under the auspices of London’s Jermyn Street theatre, by established actors – among them, Olivia Colman and Penelope Wilton – and final-year drama students. The Royal Court is challenging audiences to make their own videos based on single lines from plays performed at the theatre. At last, radio drama is getting a boost: not least through actor Bertie Carvel’s initiative in taking productions whose runs were cut short by Covid-19 to BBC Radio 3 and 4 with his Lockdown Theatre festival. Meanwhile, the National Theatre, which has streamed a terrific, varied menu, from One Man, Two Guvnors to Barber Shop Chronicles, has become truly nationwide, barriers of price and place dissolved. As has the National Theatre of Scotland.  

Streaming and recording has been a gigantic ad for theatre writing, acting and directing. But it’s a skeleton of the thing itself. Work on stage happens in the present, at a particular moment: it can’t, any more than life, be rewound or fast-forwarded. The director Richard Eyre, who in March had two shows running in the West End, puts it pungently: “Live theatre is at war with lockdown.” Not least because an essential “chemical ingredient” for actors and audiences is physical closeness. The very element that defines it makes it hard to get going again.

Jermyn Street theatre’s The Sonnet Project.

The catastrophe facing the great web of institutions and individuals that make up this country’s theatre has become evident in the past month. Nuffield Southampton Theatres has gone into administration. The National is preparing for substantial redundancies. Last week Cameron Mackintosh announced that his West End productions, which include Hamilton and Eyre’s Mary Poppins, will not reopen till next year, and that redundancies will affect all productions. Three-quarters of theatre workers are self-employed: their livelihoods are desperately precarious. Eyre points out that our politicians are not eager to get involved with the arts: “it isn’t sport”. Yet the appeals are clamant. Without a government rescue package it is estimated that 70% of performing arts companies will closed for good by Christmas. 

Theatre can help fund hospital beds: last year it brought in £133m in VAT in London alone. Last week a letter to the Treasury from nearly 100 of this year’s Olivier and other award nominees – among them Sharon D Clarke, Andrew Scott and Tom Stoppard – called on the government urgently to consider the plans for support outlined by UK Theatre/Society of London Theatres, which included the proposal that the government become a “theatrical angel”, investing in shows and sharing in the profits. In the Financial Times, director Sam Mendes drew attention to another source of revenue. Streaming services such as Amazon Prime and Netflix have been made rich – richer – by drawing on acting, writing and directorial talent during the pandemic: they could now help sustain that money-starved talent.

London’s Old Vic last week.



London’s Old Vic last week. Photograph: Dominic Lipinski/PA

Paradoxically, the buttoned-up Brits are celebrated abroad for their dramatic gifts: the theatre brings us visitors. In its particular ability to take us into and lift us out of ourselves, it can also help us imagine a new future. What will the post-pandemic theatre be like? It cannot be as white – on stage and backstage – as it has been allowed to be. This was changing slowly before the coronavirus, and change will surely – must – accelerate after the 2020 anti-racism protests. It may be, as Kathy Burke predicted last month on Radio 4’s Saturday Live, that there will be a resurgence of urgent fringe work. Richard Eyre agrees. “Those of us who remember the 70s remember that is exactly what happened. Theatres like the Oval House and Soho and Battersea Arts Centre were started by people who didn’t have subsidy and resources, but wanted to express themselves.”

Meanwhile, an under-reported aspect of theatre continues. It’s exemplified by James Brining and Robert Hastie, artistic directors of Leeds Playhouse and Sheffield Theatres, who run stages that put on big, buoyant shows and which also have a clear civic function. Both, having successfully reduced their public subsidy, are now in dire straits: it costs tens of thousands of pounds a week to keep a theatre closed. Both men have plans for the summer, with Brining constructing links across the city with other arts organisations, including Opera North, and Hastie negotiating with Sheffield council to stage quick-moving (an hour-and-a-half straight through), open-air Shakespeare.

Both are continuing online the work that, like most not-for-profit theatres, they do routinely: with groups of refugees, the elderly and schools. This might be seen as social work. But it’s a particular kind: concerned, as Brining puts it, with helping people “to see themselves – and to see themselves differently”. That is something theatre can do while being explosively entertaining: as one of Sheffield’s great successes, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, has proved. It can also, as Eyre points out, offer something else crucially needed now. “You go in as individuals and, if it works, at the end you become a group, a society.” Isolation unlocked.



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