November 12, 2020

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.

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