When will the show go on? London’s Theatreland creeps out of Covid hibernation to face bleak future

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - Pre-show nerves are hardly a rarity backstage in London’s Theatreland, but seven months after a lockdown, tension behind the scenes has taken on a new meaning.

Some of the world’s most famous and historic venues closed in March and remain shuttered. An entire way of life has been devastated after strict Covid-19 social distancing rules made reopening a hazard never mind financially unviable.

A smattering of shows have been streamed online with no audience. But only now have some venues forged ahead to make the alterations necessary for theatre-lovers to return.

At the Young Vic theatre in south London last week, The New Tomorrow became its first post-shutdown live theatre with a small audience present and the show streamed online. It featured short commissioned performances and activist speeches that examined what the next 50 years may hold - highly poignant during such current uncertainty.

The New Tomorrow is the Young Vic's first production since lockdown. Young Vic 
'The New Tomorrow' is the Young Vic theatre's first production since lockdown. Young Vic

The main room was adapted to provide 79 single seats at least a metre away from each other for the lucky few who obtained a ticket via a ballot.

The rehearsal process was largely conducted online, says director Jennifer Tang, who visited the Young Vic’s stage just days before the curtains were raised.

“It was actually quite emotional walking back into a theatre space, actually into an auditorium, and seeing a stage that was ready to accept performers, that had lights, had sound. I can’t quite describe just how magical that feeling was and it made realise that during lockdown I’ve not really let myself feel how much I’ve been missing it,” she told The National.

“It was a really magical moment of coming back in and knowing that we are on the very slow, slippery road to bringing work back to audiences. That does feel like a responsibility but also it feels like a privilege. I feel very lucky that we’re in a position where we can be bringing work back because there are lots of buildings and organisations that might not be in this position and I really feel for my colleagues that aren’t able to do that.”

Such tentative steps to tread the boards have been made in recent weeks, but optimistic voices are few and far between.

Julian Bird, the chief executive of the Society of London Theatre (Solt) and UK Theatre, the leading collective voices for British performing arts organisations, believes only 22 per cent of venues have reopened. Of those, most have only been able to do so at 30 per cent capacity.

In July, the government announced a £1.57 billion ($2.03bn) Culture Recovery Fund via a mixture of loans and grants. But amid stark warnings that as many as 70 per cent of theatres will run out of cash by the end of the year, most applicants will not find out if they’ve been successful until next week.

Shuttered theatres have become a regular sight in London's West End during the pandemic. Getty Images
Shuttered theatres have become a regular sight in London's West End during the pandemic. Getty Images

The theatre industry employs 290,000 workers, 70 per cent of whose jobs are now at risk, according to Solt and UK Theatre in documents submitted to a parliamentary committee.

Thousands of redundancies have already been announced including at ATG, Delfont Macintosh and HQ theatres, as revenue plummets.

The bleak picture is in comparison to what was a thriving enterprise. In 2018, Britain's box office revenue was more than £1.28 billion ($1.65bn) with 34 million tickets sold, SOLT and UK Theatre said. The previous year, there were 15.3 million attendances at SOLT member venues, which includes London’s most prominent theatres, and a gross revenue of nearly £800 million ($1.034bn).

The programme ahead

Across the West End, some major shows and theatres have now announced plans to reopen. Six, the musical about King Henry VIII’s wives, will kick off at London’s Lyric Theatre on Saturday, November 14 while at The National Theatre live performances return with Death of England: Delroy from Wednesday, October 21.

Nimax Theatres, which owns six of the most famous venues in London including the Lyric, has announced its theatres will begin opening from the end of the month but will run at a loss because of social distancing.

The Show Must Go On, a concert celebrating some of the most famous shows that normally would be on in London, will be staged from Friday, November 13 to Sunday, November 15 at the Palace Theatre.

It was a really magical moment of coming back in and knowing that we are on the very slow slippery road to bringing work back to audiences

Jennifer Tang, director of the Young Vic

The Royal Ballet, Britain's largest ballet company, took a leap forward on Friday after seven months of Covid-19 gloom. It held a three-hour live-streamed performance from the Royal Opera House in central London with around 70 dancers mixing classics such as Romeo and Juliet and Don Quixote with playful modern dance.

Yet despite the glimmer of hope, the industry remains in a precarious state with the popular musical Wicked among the shows to postpone their reopening.

The reality is that even for those that reopen, reduced audiences mean shows will struggle to break even.

SOLT and UK Theatre have launched the ‘See it Safely’ campaign in the hope people will feel more comfortable about returning. But the industry also wants to show it is capable of carrying out performances safely so theatres can return to full capacity. An enhanced tax relief for productions has also been suggested to keep them afloat.

Members of The Royal Ballet dance in Elite Syncopations by Kenneth MacMillan during the
Members of The Royal Ballet dance in 'Elite Syncopations' by Kenneth MacMillan during the The Royal Ballet: Back on Stage photocall at The Royal Opera House in London. Getty Images

Theatre not a priority

There was already a bubbling frustration that the arts sector was being neglected by the government when finance chief Rishi Sunak was accused of overlooking the industry as he announced his winter support plan late last month.

Fears also linger that, with around 70 per cent of people in the sector self-employed, freelancers may struggle more than others financially.

Director Sam Mendes has spearheaded the raising of nearly £4 million ($5.2m) for the Theatre Artists Fund, which gives small emergency grants for support, but concerns remain about the long-term situation for workers if venues remain closed or cannot open at full capacity.

Producer Katy Lipson had her musical The Last Five Years at Southwark Playhouse cut short in March – leaving “astronomical” losses – as Covid-19 tightened its grip on the UK, although a revival of the staging has since begun.

“The last six months I’ve been really trying to reopen the show and to talk regularly with the venue about how they would open if the government allowed with social distancing a factor,” she said before the October 5 reopening.

As such, Southwark Playhouse has been reconfigured, with dividers in between households, a one-way system in place and extensive disinfection. Only half of its capacity will be met, which Lipson says is unsustainable in the long run.

Arts can help change people more than anything else. It’s the most incredible thing out there... it can give so much hope

Producer Katy Lipson

“Financially it’s very hard and it’s hard to get people to understand the risks you're taking and how this isn’t a normal situation where producers are making money.

“It’s a really big risk. At any point the show could close again and not only will I have lost all the money from the first time, we would have lost even more money on this time.

“I do think we have to now start working more together with representation and artists and producers, and understanding about getting the show on and giving jobs right now and giving people hope.”

It’s impossible to predict the future but she says it remains uncertain, speaking hours before the show reopened.

“I’ll feel happy tonight because (of) live theatre and I’ll be on the edge of my seat for six weeks praying that the actors don’t get poorly and the show carries on and audiences come,” said Lipson.

Tang said the hardest part as a director was not being able to have face-to-face creative conversations with her team. She says it has forced her to really think and revaluate theatre making practice.

“The thing that I realised is that Covid is not going away anytime soon and I think it’s really dangerous to think it will all just go back to normal anytime,” she said.

The impact of Covid-19 has also been felt across other entertainment venues. Last month, the English National Opera put on a drive-in Puccini's La Boheme for eight days at Alexandra Palace as it sought to redress some of the damage done during lockdown.

The Royal Albert Hall will open its doors in time for Christmas but only 36,000 tickets will be for sale compared to more than 120,000 in 2019.

Productions such as this from the Royal Ballet have been livestreamed in the absence of crowds. Reuters
Productions such as this from the Royal Ballet have been livestreamed in the absence of crowds. Reuters

The world’s second-biggest cinema chain Cineworld announced earlier this week it will temporarily close – putting nearly 6,000 jobs at risk in the UK – after the release of a slew of blockbuster films was delayed, with the postponement of the new James Bond film until 2021 proving the final nail in the coffin.

Last month, Andrew Lloyd Webber, one of the most famous names in musical theatre, warned the industry was at the point of no return.

“My life is theatre, so of course I think it’s one of the most important things out there,” said Lipson. “Arts can help change people more than anything else. It’s the most incredible thing out there, it can represent so much, it can give so much hope, it can give so much joy and we will lose a lot of companies and buildings over this and we will not be the same.”

Theatre workers are determined the show must go on, but the havoc wreaked by coronavirus means its future is far from certain.

Updated: October 10, 2020 03:03 PM

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