Once again there’s a spanner in the works. It’s goodbye to 21 June and hello to another fake promise. And once again, theatre is the middle child the government doesn't seem to care about.
It is, of course, the arts sector which will bear the brunt of the government’s most recent decision to extend restrictions for another four weeks. It’s not the cautious approach to Covid-19 which I loathe, it’s the last minute action. It’s the dashed hope. It’s the utter lack of care for venues who have to reduce capacity for tickets they’ve already sold, for patrons who have bought tickets that are invalidated only seven days before their performance date.
Many theatres will have to reallocate bookings, many theatres will have to cancel shows. And while it’s been simply wonderful to see the return of live theatre over the past few weeks, I find myself questioning how theatres will survive in their current state on a long term basis. Is this the final straw for the industry?
Producer Sonia Freidman stated in a Telegraph article that she has ‘never been more worried about what lies ahead for the West End and all commercial touring theatre’. We must hope that her pleas for government aid do not fall on deaf ears. The cost of the pandemic to the West End has been astronomical, and I wonder how it will affect the future of theatre altogether.
With theatres able to sell fewer tickets, prices are likely to soar. All the hard work of charities such as ‘Mousetrap Theatre Projects’ and the ‘Accessible Theatre Scheme’, who aim to bring theatre to families of lower economic backgrounds, will be undone. Touring companies, who make professional productions accessible for those outside of the London hotspot, are also likely to deteriorate. And will theatres even be able to afford ‘relaxed’ performances to aid those with disabilities again?
The problem seems to be that the sector works differently to many others. It needs people – audiences and actors alike – to survive. And not just physically, as with many other industries that rely on in-person events, but also emotionally. It needs that human connection. Meanwhile, the pandemic has encouraged us to keep our distance from each other, and that is the antithesis of theatre’s ethos – an ethos which relies on interactions, on emotions, on shared experiences.
Is this an ethos which will never quite return?
Andrew Lloyd Webber himself has launched a furious backlash at the government’s decision, even threatening legal action and demanding that a ‘lifeline’ of increased audience capacities be offered to the industry. This is not a man who has complained like this before. This is a man who closed his theatres for a longer time span than others, foreseeing the difficulties that theatres would face in 2021. And this is a man who now seems desperate.
And while Webber has certainly made headlines, I’ve recently noticed how little the problems of the theatre industry have made major news channels. After all, as long as the curtains still rise and the lights still flash, the decaying future of the theatre industry seems hidden behind a facade of jazzy overtunes.
All we can do is hope that the government recognises the needs of the industry soon. The goal is not only for it to survive, but for it to actively thrive. And especially if accessibility is damaged by the pandemic, that doesn’t seem likely at the moment...