Curtain Call in COVID-19

The last time I saw live theatre was back in late 2019, when I was sat watching Paul O’Grady in drag performing in the pantomime version of Goldilocks. Despite my preconceptions of watching a pantomime as an adult, it was surprisingly rude and worthy of genuine laughs out loud. I left the theatre entertained and desperate to tell any unlucky acquaintance about the past two hours of sex and bum jokes I had just witnessed. Over a year later, it looks like theatres will finally be able to reopen to half capacity on 17 May 2021, and full capacity on that fated day in June 2021. But with the cinema industry hit hard enough to bankrupt Cineworld, things don’t bode well for the theatre industry.

Over lockdown, various theatrical loopholes have appeared, all designed to fill a stage-shaped hole and also inject some much-needed money back into the industry. I’m sure many will remember the period in early 2020 lockdown when theatres began streaming recordings of their performances on YouTube. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s marvellous creations were rolled out, and I personally managed to miss every single one, but from what my friends and family have said, they were great. Sadly, the chance to relive memories of my Year 6 production of Joseph and his Technicolour Dreamcoat was gone.

The National Theatre also streamed their productions, which gave me the opportunity to watch their brilliant adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. As an English student who was doing an exam on the text, it brought some much-needed entertainment into my revision. Admittedly, anyone who walked into the room while my mum and I watched were rather confused to see Benedict Cumberbatch writhing naked on the floor at the start. But it was an amazing production, and the set with it’s millions of lightbulbs overhead was a joy to watch even while sat at home on a sofa. I also enjoyed a production of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, which sadly my mum did not choose to watch with me. In both instances, theatre opened the world of literature and gave faces and stages to characters I had merely read in a book. It also gave me something to keep me entertained.

And while some theatres broadcasted old productions, some made entirely new productions in lockdown. David Tenant and Michael Sheen created Staged with the BBC, while closer to home Exeter’s Northcott Theatre commissioned numerous digital projects for a collection called ‘The Time (For Change) is Now’. Staged is funny, but the lack of spectacle or stage or anything other than a screen with an actor’s face reduces it to some strange digital form of stand-up comedy or skit. Equally, some of the projects in ‘The Time (For Change) is Now’ are created on Zoom calls, and they all just feel bland. It’s not to say that these projects are bad in any way, but the use of an online face-to-face call as a medium for theatre is just too close to the reality of lockdown. For those of us, or everyone, who is sat at home living their lives through zoom calls and meetings, we don’t want to be entertained by seeing the same Zoom meetings.

At its simplest level, theatre is a form of escapism. I’m sure anyone reading this has memories of the interval ice creams, or the limbo of waiting by the bar before the second act, or more importantly, that moment where you could’ve sworn the actor spoke their lines to you. The stage, the costumes, the moving set and closing curtains are all part of an experience that sadly cannot be truly replicated in lockdown.

So, what happens next? It’s a great question, and one which a lowly student like myself cannot really answer. From interviews and reports about those in charge of the theatres, the re-opening and sudden closing of theatres back in December of 2020 was costly and frustrating. So, when theatres do finally open, they’ll only be functioning at half capacity, and not showing the big productions like Hamilton or Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, but ones with smaller casts. There will be a rush to re-open, but no particular rush to get back to full capacity even after June 2021.

As with many cultural institutions, or institutions in general, it will still be a long wait for things to return to ‘normal’. But once the theatres do return, it will be good news for English-studying, art-appreciating people like myself, but also the escapism-seeking, immature-joke-loving people too (also like myself).

Henry Hood

Featured Image Source: Pexels

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