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Theatre could stage a comeback Without a wave of creative destruction, the hidebound industry will become irrelevant

Daniel Radcliffe plays Alan Strang in Peter Shaffer's Equus,(Photo: CHRIS YOUNG/AFP via Getty Images)

Daniel Radcliffe plays Alan Strang in Peter Shaffer's Equus,(Photo: CHRIS YOUNG/AFP via Getty Images)


November 12, 2020   5 mins

Going to the theatre is its own small performance. A nice dress, a G&T in the bar, the anticipation of what the stage will hold. This used to make me anxious (Will I enjoy it? Will I enjoy it in the right way? Will I enjoy it to the value of £35?) until a friend explained the life-changing magic of leaving in the interval. And though I’ve never quite shaken the hope that a duff first half will turn into a magical second, this advice made me realise that I was under no obligation to be delighted.

The point is to be there, to see drama erupt in front of you, to feel whatever you feel — bored, irritated, hysterical, awed — because of what real, quick-pulsed, accident-prone people are doing in same room as you. This is why recorded or even streamed theatre has never seemed enticing to me. Why watch something on a screen that can only be a flattened version of the living play?

Then, the last time I went to the theatre — between the lockdowns, to see a revival of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal at the Theatre Royal in Bath — it felt like a performance of a different sort. The temperature gun at the entrance. The nervous milling to avoid breaching social distancing. The smothering muzzle of my own warm breath trapped under a mask (which, as much as I accept the necessity, I’m never going to find pleasant). The emptiness of the place, with seats deliberately unbooked so we were all well-spaced.

As happy as I was to be back, it was inevitably strange. And the strangeness leaches from the audience to the stage. The audience, self-conscious about the whole business of being an audience, can’t play its part quite the way we should. There’s a bristle of tension in the room, but only partly directed at the business on-stage: however fraught the three-hander of adultery and deception is, it’s now in competition with the persistent worry that just being here might kill you. Up in the balcony, we fluffed a couple of our cues, coming in too late with the laughs the actors had earned, taking too long to share the ripple of emotion through our socially distanced seats.

Can theatre come back from Covid? Early on in lockdown, an acquaintance who works in theatre described his business — with surprising sanguinity — as doomed, given that it subsists on “old people sitting together in the dark”. The average age of a theatregoer is 52. The largest group is those aged 65-74. From a coronavirus point of view, it could only really be worse if the theatre held special sway with profound asthmatics. Then, to make your margins, you take that audience and stack it elbow-to-elbow, except you can’t do that anymore, so you find ways to eke those margins out.

That, presumably, is why the Theatre Royal chose its reopening season, which it billed as a run of “modern classics”. Betrayal, Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen, David Mamet’s Oleanna: all plays with recognisable names and bankable writers, but also, all plays with tiny casts and simple staging to keep costs down. Then the second lockdown came before Copenhagen could begin. As December looms, theatres are looking at missing out on the financially critical panto season. Many expect never to open again.

And this is, arguably, not such a tragedy. In May, Igor Toronyi-Lalic of the Spectator made lots of theatre people very angry by suggesting that theatre closures could be an opportunity for a sclerotic industry to revive itself. “The idea that institutions set up 50 years ago, sometimes 100 years ago, sometimes 300 years ago, are inevitably the ones that will make sense of the future is something that must at least be debated,” he wrote, and the logic is hard to dismiss.

Theatres struggle on in august buildings that are barely fit for purpose and often impossible to renovate because of their listed status. Their seats are uncomfy (a million curses on the stalls at the National Theatre), their loos inadequate, particularly for women (if you ever go to the Bristol Hippodrome, I recommend going nil by mouth for the day before). All the glorious history of these places can’t disguise the fact that a lot of them have something of the white elephant about them.

Then there’s the puzzle of theatre’s culture. Audiences aren’t only disproportionately old, they’re also disproportionately white (92%, as opposed to 87% of the population overall, although this is also connected to the age of the audiences and the fact that BAME Britons skew younger). This tends to bother the people who make theatre, who are nearly all of the left and feel a moral responsibility for their art to be inclusive. The punishment for perceived failure can be sharp, yet the audience continues to be ageing and white. “Inclusivity” seems, perversely, to function more as a code word marking the theatre insiders than as a principle towards which concrete advances are made.

(A possible example: a few years ago, I went to see a play about commercial surrogacy. Anyone watching might have congratulated themselves on the fact that it had a multi-ethnic cast and posed troubling questions about privilege; but it centred on a white main character agonising about her whiteness, and the audience seemed to be mostly white people similarly experiencing feelings about being white. You could say it was formally inclusive while being dramatically exclusive. It was also quite boring.)

In terms of audience recruitment, theatre should have a great advantage, which is that most of the population will attend at least once in the course of their education. But it’s not enough to get people through the door — theatre has to win them over as well. When the National put on Macbeth recently, it sold well (thanks to Macbeth being a GCSE set text) but reviewed badly: Rufus Norris, artistic director of the National, explained that this was because although the play works best in intimate theatres, it needed to be accessible to the largest possible audience given the school crowds. So they put Macbeth on the biggest stage, and it felt bloated and remote rather than claustrophobic and doomed. If that’s your first taste, why would you go back for more?

The demands on theatre can feel impossible. Be modern — while being constrained to ancient, inconvenient building. Be relevant to the nation at large — without alienating your existing audience, who after all are all you can rely on. Be accessible — although you can never be cheap, because a live show always comes at a certain cost, a certain risk. All this threatens to smother what theatre is: in the critic Kenneth Tynan’s words, “basically a means of spending two hours in the dark without being bored”. Perhaps a wave of creative destruction is exactly what’s needed.

Because while a bad play is a very sorry way to spend an evening, when good theatre happens, there’s nothing else like it. The audacity of every part — actors, stagehands, lighting, sound — coming together in front of your eyes. The thrill of knowing that your reactions are a part of the work that exists this night.

A revival of Peter Shaffer’s obscene Equus left me haunted by divine violence, dreaming about horses: what I’d watched had the power of not just drama but ritual. I think, often, of the terrible assembly of the crinoline around the Queen at the end of Robert Icke’s Mary Stuart, and how no other art form could have made that particular nightmare real. For more of that, I think I could learn how to be an audience again, even in these strange conditions.


Sarah Ditum is a columnist, critic and feature writer.

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Ben Scott
Ben Scott
3 years ago

I guess that the impact on the arts will result in a marked decrease in the number of virtue signalling celebs. Every cloud, as they say…

Andrew Best
Andrew Best
3 years ago

£35 to be lectured to about whiteness!
Sounds absolutely riveting.
It’s to expensive, what working class person is going to spend the equivalent of a week’s single person shopping on watching a play?
It’s for the middles classes and old people.
Lived in London all my life, 30 minutes walk from the west end and I know no one who goes or cares in any way about your theater

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

I was a very keen theatre goer in my late teens and early twenties, always at the sodding Royal Court and various other places including opera and ballet. I enjoyed it at the time and saw some memorable plays, but I stopped subsidising the luvvies a long time ago outside of am dram to support people I know. Actually, the amateurs can be very good. A production of Ibsen’s ‘An Enemy Of The People’ last year was excellent, with fine staging and performances).

Over time I came to realise that a lot of these theatres etc are tax funded, so if you attend you are, effectively, paying twice! And boy are you paying – the prices have gone crazy over the last 20 years. I certainly will not be returning if I have to wear one of these ridiculous masks, which I believe do more harm than good.

Andrew Lale
Andrew Lale
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

The best play I ever went to was at the Judy Dench theatrical school in Crouch End- all young actors in training. Utterly memorable.

Matthew Powell
Matthew Powell
3 years ago

I was a regular at the theatre but hadn’t been in over two years before coronavirus shut the theatres down.

90% of plays are little more than far left propaganda now. I’ve withdrawn my business and I hope the government will soon withdraw my taxes as well and spend them on something more worthwhile.

Frederik van Beek
Frederik van Beek
3 years ago

Of course theatre and cultural live alltogether will not bounce back, never again. The people who still have some common sense left are hiding, watching, waiting and waiting and waiting…… afraid to loose their jobs, to loose their friends. Meanwhile a new, still nameless ideology is unfolding. An ideology of total control. As with every new ideology, cultural life, which stands for our freedom of expression, will be destroyed. The definition of freedom will be rebuild. Freedom as we know it will be replaced by safety. Taking risk is like a terrorist act. (English is not my native language, as one can probably read, never mind….:))

Ursa Mare
Ursa Mare
3 years ago

Freedom will be replaced by safety. (Taking risk is like a terrorist act.) Brilliant! I’ll drink to that!

Mike Spoors
Mike Spoors
3 years ago

I think it is obvious that the Arts are now obsessed with widening the audience into groups that they feel are under represented without ever wondering whether they are actually in the least bit interested. As someone who came to culture late, after 50 years of gallery going, theatre, opera and dance attendance I can’t ever really say that the majority of the audience has got younger, rather we have grown old together. although Dance has been more successful than other forms.

My local theatre has set out to embrace ‘diversity’. They have colour and gender blind casting and it is clear that they are actively encouraging a more diverse and younger audience. The problem is that the audience, attending because the plays are part of the exam curriculum appear not to be that interested, rather as it was when I attended schools classical concerts decades ago. I appreciate that if you don’t try then you will never attract a wider audience but I, and I suspect many like me, are put off going to things where the objective is not to celebrate the thing as the creator intended but to dissect it, traduce it if necessary, and ultimately diminish it to make it ‘meaningful’ to an audience that just might not exist or indeed care about it in any form. Easier to blame the existing audience of the old, white, and middle class who of course are actively stopping the rest from crossing the portals of High Culture.

As you may surmise I no longer go to the subsidised theatre, feeling that it is no longer aimed at me and the feeling I get that my very presence is somehow a provocation.

Nick Whitehouse
Nick Whitehouse
3 years ago

Tut, tut, – creative destruction,; the celebs will have a fainting fit over such a capitalistic term!
Are their any interesting modern plays at all these days? They all seem to be dire left wing plays, guaranteed to leaving one depressed.

occam2436
occam2436
3 years ago

The author of the article shows why the “theater” lost its proper purpose a long time ago. She wants the “theater” to return so she can have more nightmares. Most people pay for entertainment that provides a RELIEF from the nightmares of reality, not EXTRA nightmares.

Don Butler
Don Butler
3 years ago
Reply to  occam2436

Your point is well taken that entertainment provides relief. However, theater is not, and has never been. solely to entertain. It is also to “enlighten” which is one of the reasons the left has found it so useful, because they are constantly seeking to “enlighten” the dull masses. To aver that theater–which can be a serious and perhaps the most profound of all art forms–is merely entertainment is to misunderstand its purpose and history. But, you are right, it should ALSO entertain; and the far left seems to be filled with unhappy, angst-ridden dark souls who use it for their own personal catharsis rather than the catharsis of the audience. At least when catharsis is intended. At any rate, the result inevitably is boring blather.

Michael Dawson
Michael Dawson
3 years ago

As with many businesses, the discussion of the impact of the pandemic often seems to be rather simplistic. Yes, some businesses will go bust or close because the owners run out of money or decide it’s just not worth carrying on. But unless the pandemic has led to some more fundamental changes, it’s highly likely that other will take over the failed businesses, or set up their own, so the sector as a whole will not be much smaller in, say, three or four years time. Theatres, cinemas, pubs, hotels – they all come in this category. Office accommodation may be different if the move to homeworking during the pandemic leads to structural changes in the pattern of home/office working.

Jonathan da Silva
Jonathan da Silva
3 years ago

“Perhaps a wave of creative destruction is exactly what’s needed.”

Poor Schumpeter rolls in his grave.

Don Holden
Don Holden
3 years ago

I used to live a stone’s throw from the Theatre Royal East fifty-odd years ago, and that theatre was based in the community, with Joan Littlewood and Gerry Raffles at the helm. Although both of them were undoubtedly lefties the entertainment ( it was not solely dramas ) was not one long lecture. The actors walked down Angel Lane, mixed with the theatregoers when the show was over, and what’s more there wasn’t a theatrical scarf to be seen !

Dean Barwell
Dean Barwell
3 years ago

Pre Covid I enjoyed theater but was rather picky about what I would attend. The cost even in the smaller local venues (very good where I live) let alone London prices is only one reason. Hofesh Shechter – Political Mother, Jennifer Haley’s – The Nether were masterful in all aspects and well worth the money. Closer to home and so cheaper, great productions of The Woman In Black and guess who’s Coming to Dinner were also superb, the great Gatsby, not so.
Most notably the political and ethical aspects of the plays stated were done in that brilliant way that classic theater has always done.
Sadly a lot of up and coming plays and company’s are far more interested in ramming an agenda down an audiences throat rather than leading them on a journey, or just good old fashioned entertainment.
Having said that compared to comedy, well, enough said.

Andrew Lale
Andrew Lale
3 years ago

I have had some fantastic experiences in theatres. But I have stopped going, as casting against type, with butch lesbians and black women playing all the men’s roles, has ruined everything.

Peter Scott
Peter Scott
3 years ago

The single change MOST needed in theatre is for directors to stop being lunatics. Some productions of the classics seem nowadays almost designed to ruin magnificent plays and torment the audience.
(They have even started to change some of Shakespeare’s endings.)
There is no real intelligence in presenting (say)”As You Like It” as a festival of transgender palavers.
That sort of thing is just UNinventive people with loads of pretension to artistic sensibility putting their own smudgy thumbprint on somebody else’s great achievement in order to tell themselves that they are creative too.

They are incapable of producing great works of their own; and lack the humility to serve well the cause of rendering others’ great works faithfully in the spirit of the scripts.