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Empty chairs, empty stages: a year of London’s closed theatres

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Empty chairs, empty stages: a year of London’s closed theatres
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veryone in UK theatre remembers where they were on Monday, March 16th, 2020. Indira Varma was preparing to play Arkadina – “one of the best roles I’ve ever been given” – in a preview of The Seagull with the Jamie Lloyd Company at the Playhouse, opposite her fellow Game of Thrones star Emilia Clarke as Nina. Lloyd himself was “in bed, feeling terrible with all the symptoms of Covid, though I was never tested”. Rosalie Craig and her husband Hadley Fraser were due to go on stage together in City of Angels at the Garrick, alongside former Girls Aloud member Nicola Roberts and US star Vanessa Williams. “It was one of those rare, lovely times on the job where everything is going brilliantly,” she recalls.

Emilia Clarke’s West End debut in The Seagull never happened

Roxana Silbert had taken over as artistic director of Hampstead Theatre only the previous September. She came out of a run-through of Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter, part of the venue’s 60th birthday season, to an announcement from Matt Hancock that “all unnecessary social contact” should cease. “I turned around and told everyone, ‘guys, you’ve got to leave’,” she recalls. “And they were like: is it me? Was I that bad?”

This week marks a year since the Prime Minister told theatres to close their doors. Apart from brief flurries of optimistic openings in August and December, theatre – the wellspring of the UK creative industries and of London’s night time economy – has remained closed. Though the government’s Cultural Recovery Fund and other sources stopped most organisations going to the wall, uncountable numbers of actors, directors, writers, technicians and craftspeople have struggled. One in four theatre freelancers have gone out of business or ceased trading, according to a survey published today by the Society of London Theatre (SOLT).  “Normally I’m the king of anniversaries and throw big parties,” says producer Cameron Mackintosh drily. “This is not one I relish. But now we have rounded a corner.”

Cameron Mackintosh

/ Getty Images

In accordance with the government’s roadmap out of lockdown, some socially distanced openings are planned for May 17, including Mackintosh’s own concert staging of Les Miserables at the Sondheim Theatre, and Six the Musical at its neighbour on Shaftesbury Avenue, the Lyric. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cinderella is scheduled for the Gillian Lynne Theatre in the summer, and Disney’s Frozen arrives at the rebuilt Drury Lane in August. According to SOLT’s survey, 83 per cent of organisations based in England plan to resume activity from June 21, when all restrictions on social mixing are due to be lifted. “Realistically, by autumn of next year we will be back up with some sort of normalcy in the West End,” says Mackintosh.

But it’s a long game. “The lead time for one of the big shows is four to six months,” says SOLT Chief Executive Julian Bird. Not every producer will risk that investment until it’s confirmed, a week before June 21, that social distancing can be abandoned. Logistics are a nightmare. Lloyd Webber had 38 productions running worldwide when the pandemic hit, a slate of shows that evolved over decades. While the plates are spinning you can keep them going: when they stop, you have to start all over again, one by one.

Her Majesty’s Theatre, previously showing The Phantom of the Opera

/ PA

Like other producers and theatre owners, Cameron Mackintosh had to lay off a lot of staff, keeping on a core team of 200 to plan, prepare, and maintain his eight West End theatres. (He wasn’t eligible for CRF funding, and reckons he lost “a gulp-making £25-26m just in closure costs this last year”; he also spent £2-3m upgrading his theatres – Lloyd Webber has upgraded those he owns too.)

Now, Mackintosh’s reduced team is already working to reopen shows in Japan and Australia in May and September: how will it manage to remount the Phantom of the Opera in London and New York if – as seems likely – theatres in both cities reopen simultaneously? How do you recast, or rebuild technical teams if people have taken long-term filming jobs, or become Deliveroo drivers?

Jamie Lloyd’s Seagull was ready to open last March, the centrepiece of a season of three star-led productions that began with James McAvoy in Cyrano de Bergerac and was to conclude with Jessica Chastain in A Doll’s House. “Emilia Clarke has committed to The Seagull on any time frame,” Lloyd says. “The weird thing is whether we can reunite the full cast. Jessica Chastain is committed to doing A Doll’s House, probably next year now. But it’s all going to look a lot different: it was meant to be a season, there was a language emerging across the productions. And we’re all different people now, aren’t we? Maybe [The Seagull] will be even more Chekhovian: the isolation, boredom and yearning for connection of characters thrown into a claustrophobic space and forced to get along, ha ha.” His laugh is slightly hysterical.

Nadia Fall

Across the wider sector in London, artistic directors have been endlessly recalibrating plans on an almost daily basis. At Theatre Royal Stratford East, Nadia Fall had planned a spring season of plays by Dipo Baruwa-Etti, Dennis Kelly and April De Angelis “designed for a socially-distanced, pandemic world”. Should they be rescheduled and staged as planned after lockdown, or reconceived? What will the knock-on effect be on future productions? “It’s like being an amateur gambler or gamer,” Fall says, “up all night on the screen trying to figure things out and keeping a brave face on like a bloody circus acrobat.”

During the year, the National Theatre became a kind of bellwether of the R-number. It opened a seven-hour production, The Seven Streams of the River Ota, in the 894-seat Lyttelton on Fri 13 March. Death of England: Delroy, by Roy Williams and Clint Dyer, opened and closed in a socially distanced Olivier Theatre the night before the third lockdown came in; the National’s first ever panto, Dick Whittington, was shunted online and its planned staging of Romeo and Juliet, with Jessie Buckley and Josh O’Connor, was reconceived as a film that will debut on Sky Arts on Easter Sunday.

“It has been an absolute rollercoaster,” says executive director Lisa Burger. “It’s exhausting, planning and replanning and seeing the terrible devastation to people in the sector, what’s happened to the freelancers. We’ve been trying to do our bit, continuing to make work to address some of that, to keep going and find new audiences.”

Key to this was the launch of NT at Home, a subscription service for recordings of stage productions, which pays performance rights to those involved in the original show. The free, pilot screening on YouTube of Richard Bean’s One Man Two Guvnors for the service last April reached a global audience of nearly a million people according to Screendaily. “NT at home did 10m [viewers] in 10 weeks and has gone on to be about 15m, an astonishing thing,” Burger says.

Other theatres have discovered a new reach, too. The Bush Theatre put out a film of Travis Alabanza’s Overflow, about a trans woman under siege in a women’s restroom, after its brief, bold run in December was curtailed. “It was watched by 5,000 people in at least 20 different countries,” says associate director Daniel Bailey. But before theatre-makers could even think about new ways to make work and reach audiences, there was the existential question of how to live.

“From the moment the theatres went dark, my job stopped,” says Stefan Musch, a freelance wigs, hair and makeup designer and supervisor who earned most of his income by making and maintaining the hairpieces for productions of Phantom, Les Mis and Miss Saigon around the world. After dealing with his father’s death from Covid in his native Germany, Musch picked up some bits of work in film and for Britain’s Got Talent, but theatre is his real home: “My real worry is that many talented friends and colleagues might not come back. I know one wig company has shut down completely.”

Having been wrenched out of the profoundly satisfying experience of The Seagull – “coitus interruptus is the obvious expression” – Indira Varma collapsed for two weeks with Covid. Ineligible for government support, she got some radio work (including ‘bubble’ gigs with her partner Colin Tierney) and was then cast in Brian Friel’s Faith Healer alongside Michael Sheen and David Threlfall for the Old Vic’s In Camera season. The actors were filmed, safely distanced, in the empty theatre, the result broadcast live to a paying audience.

“It was very sad as I’d played the Old Vic the year before [in a riotous production of Coward’s Present Laughter], and witnessed it full of laugher and packed out,” she says. “But it also felt quite hallowed to be on stage at all, carrying this baton on while we were locked down.” Later, Varma did 10 weeks on the ABC series For Life in New York, which clashed, awkwardly, with the homeschooling of her 13-year-old daughter. She has also subsequently been cast in the new Obi Wan Kenobi TV spinoff, and the next Mission: Impossible instalment.

But as Rosalie Craig points out, all filming was initially shut down along with live performance. “As the months progressed you heard whispers of things happening,” she says. “Someone’s filming? Where? How?” She and her husband recorded some radio plays and voiceovers for Netflix animations, and did a two-person online musical for Southwark Playhouse. He’s been writing a TV series, she’s been teaching drama students over Zoom and training as a yoga teacher. But until she was cast in another, hush-hush Netflix show (live action this time) there were times they wondered how to pay the mortgage, or their daughter’s nursery fees (ongoing, even though the nursery was shut).

Rosalie Craig

/ Daniel Hambury/@stellapicsltd

“I’m lucky enough to do a job I’m able to continue doing,” says writer David Hare, “but for any other freelancer doing any other job than writing, it’s murder. And it’s bad for young playwrights who want to know what their voice is going to sound like. We haven’t heard from anyone for a year, and it’s new voices that cheer the theatre up.” Although he hates lockdown Hare sounds remarkably cheerful following his own, nasty, early bout of Covid, which inspired his monologue Beat the Devil, performed by Ralph Fiennes at the Bridge last August. “I have become more hippyish,” he says. “This has been a massive strike back by the natural world and has put human beings in their place.” He has another play due to go on at the Bridge, probably delayed now until next year.

Writer Beth Steel has seen her family epic House of Shades pushed indefinitely back from its planned opening at the Almeida in May. Unlike Hare, she initially found herself paralysed in lockdown. “I really felt I couldn’t work in the spring or the summer,” she says. “I couldn’t even read, apart from news cycle stuff.” In late summer, reading poetry “opened my brain up again” and she recommenced writing another “big, big play” for the National, where she is writer in residence (but not, obviously, actually in residence). She doesn’t know when it will go on.

The exposure of the precarity of many theatre workers’ lives forged a new solidarity. Steel was a founding member of the lobbying group Freelancers Make Theatre Work, and from it gained a better understanding of the work of stage managers, lighting designers and choreographers. Rosalie Craig helped to organise a huge silent protest by freelancers in Parliament Square. Playwright James Graham, director Sam Mendes, and Phoebe Waller-Bridge stressed the interconnectedness of the wider arts ecology – how fringe and regional theatre feed into London’s major stages and thence into film and TV. Creatives stopped being apologetic about their contribution to the nation’s culture, wellbeing and finances.

When the Black Lives Matter protests shone a light on a more lethal strain of unfairness, theatres were quick to move. Nadia Fall put on 846, an audio play inspired by George Floyd’s murder, which then became an outdoor happening. “It was scratchy but people responded to it,” she says. The Bush put out Protest, a series of online artistic responses which were similarly “raw but real”, as Daniel Bailey puts it. “A whole generation of artists has been birthed out of this stuff,” he adds. Death of England: Delroy – a monologue for a black man written by two black male writers, Clint Dyer and Roy Williams – in the Olivier at the National Theatre was a significant moment.

As well as finding new ways to create and deliver work during lockdown, theatre-makers have had a chance to take a good, hard look at their industry. At Theatre 503 in Battersea, artistic director Lisa Spirling is looking to fix the “broken” business model of hire fees that price many new writers out of a first production. The National is working out how to be a truly national theatre with less money and fewer staff. The Bush, Almeida, Stratford East, Hampstead and others have been building on their already-strong community ties and fostering connections with writers. The consensus seems to be that the industry has to be better than it was. “You have seen pretty wide-open conversations about that,” says Bird. “I hope those conversations don’t stop.” For Jamie Lloyd, greater inclusivity “makes the work better and more exciting”.

Panto dames protested outside the closed Palace Theatre

/ PA

There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that theatre will bounce back. Cameron Mackintosh believes audiences are champing at the bit for the West End’s blockbuster shows, and that the openings of 2020 convinced punters that theatres were safe. He also sounds a note of caution about the prospects of second-tier productions that people opt for if they can’t get into Hamilton or Harry Potter; about the continuing impact of tourism restrictions; and about the need for insurers to underwrite live events.

Lisa Spirling is hoping for a “f*** it moment” where new writers take the plunge and take risks: “I think there will be a lot of anger, a lot of joy, a lot of plays where people are touching each other.” David Hare is hoping for a new voice will emerge, akin to Michaela Coel in the TV world or Sally Rooney in fiction to “lift the whole thing up and make theatre exciting again”. Daniel Bailey sees the pandemic as a chance to “switch it up and create something new”.

Perhaps Beth Steel puts it best. “I feel nothing but positive,” she shouts into her camera. “I’m that kind of bird anyway, you can probably tell. That whole idea of theatre competing with Netflix has gone out the window, ‘cause everybody’s watched everything [on television]. Now people wanna get out of their pyjamas and be in a room and experience catharsis, to deal with fear and grief and politics. If people want tap dancing and fun, brilliant, bring it on. But I also think there will be a huge appetite for plays that really delve into us, quite f***ing frankly.”

The Evening Standard Future Theatre Fund, in association with TikTok and in partnership with the National Youth Theatre, supports emerging talent in British theatre. Find out more at standard.co.uk/futuretheatrefund #FutureTheatreFund #TikTokBreakoutStar

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What London’s Studying Now: this week’s bestselling leading 5 textbooks

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What London’s Reading Now: the top five hot titles

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This checklist has been compiled with thanks to bookshop.org and Daunt Publications

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