Sadly, the short answer is probably ‘not any time soon’. Despite Boris’s rather obfuscating announcement on Sunday (May 10) about the partial relaxation of lockdown in some areas, London’s theatres look set to remain shut for the foreseeable future, a situation which could have a permanently damaging effect on the industry. On May 5, the Society of London Theatre announced that all productions in the capital would be cancelled up until the end of June. That will certainly now be extended. Many productions scheduled for this year have already been postponed until 2021.
Mega-producer Cameron Mackintosh of ‘Cats’, ‘Les Misérables’ and ‘Hamilton’ fame is one of many industry insiders predicting a long haul for the city’s theatre, suggesting recently that even after lockdown is removed it could take months to reassemble casts and get productions back on our stages.
In a piece in theatre newspaper The Stage, actors’ union Equity called on the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, to extend support for self-employed workers, including actors, since ‘theatres are unlikely to reopen until 2021’. In a letter to the chancellor, Equity’s general secretary, Christine Payne wrote: ‘Health and safety issues such as social distancing provide complex challenges to a sector where audiences are an integral part of the experience. We anticipate that the majority of theatres, pubs, comedy clubs and other live entertainment venues across the country will not start to open their doors until early next year, if indeed they manage to survive until then.’
It’s a pretty bleak picture, but hardly unexpected. London’s theatres, especially the cramped venues in the West End, many of which date back to the nineteenth century, are simply physically unable to impose any kind of social distancing. Even if they were, the consequent reduction in audience sizes would make most productions financially unviable.
National Theatre director Rufus Norris has also expressed grave fears, saying: ‘If we’re not careful and we don’t get supported through it (by the government), it’s likely to be devastating for this industry and consequently for the arts in the UK.’
Ironically, theatre has been a real cultural lifeline for people under lockdown, with free streaming initiatives from the likes of the National Theatre at Home and Shakespeare’s Globe at Home. Great as these are, though, they don’t bring venues any revenue. No bums on seats, darling. Not paying ones, anyway.
If there are any hopeful signs, it’s that some new stage productions are starting to be announced for 2021, including, heroically, a revival of Jez Butterworth’s landmark play ‘Jerusalem’, once again starring Mark Rylance. It’s a drop in the ocean, though. There’s a very real possibility right now that without massive external support, it could be curtains for a significant number of London’s theatres.
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