It may be the antithesis of Alice in Wonderland, but, inexplicably, I seem to have been plagued by a recurring dream that feels as if it has gone on for months.
Part is pure H G Wells, as my fevered imagination conjures up a dystopia in which a pandemic rages across the planet, killing millions and rendering hopeless governments helpless. In another part of the brain, a shoot-'em-up Hollywood blockbuster with echoes of James Bond is firing off stories about a mad president of the USA, who after losing office decides to launch a coup against his elderly successor.
A third strand of this irredeemably terrible nightmare seems more benign but is still painful, as it depicts a situation in which I am perennially trapped at home and, to compound the horrors, every theatre in the country has been deemed unsafe and closed for the foreseeable future with many at severe risk of financial failure such that they may never reopen.
The only mystery is that somehow, while I sleep through this impossible, hateful nightmare, I appear to be writing a column for the UK’s leading independent theatre web site. Unexpectedly, amidst all of this depressing material for the worst kind of disaster movie, the last week has inspired me with hope for the future. That is largely due to a single, quasi-theatrical production that I enjoyed over the weekend.
Other readers may have found great satisfaction in some of the online offerings that have been available in such abundance since last March. I have tried to characterise them before and there is little doubt that many of the recordings of stage productions from the heady pre-lockdown days are of the highest quality. Just think of the National Theatre, the Met, Stratford in Canada and smaller venues like New York’s Mint Theater.
Where the theatre has so far rarely managed to hit new heights is in work recorded under conditions constrained by social distancing. In many ways, this is hardly surprising since it is asking directors to work with new media in situations that prevent them from utilising even some of the basic skills that make watching drama a pleasure.
Until this week, the choice has generally come down to well-written pieces that are only marginally hindered by the use of Zoom, filmed features that were far closer to movies than theatre and the odd ambitious attempt to make the most of the new technology, the majority of which have tried hard but ultimately achieved little but looking gimmicky.
However, storming on to the horizon has come a production from a new American company, Streaming Musicals LLC. Estella Scrooge is astonishing. This modern reworking of A Christmas Carol has a cracking script from John (The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby / Les Misérables) Caird and Paul Gordon that should provoke laughter and tears. The producers have then clearly provided what must be a substantial budget, judging by the quality of a cast weighed down by Tony nominations.
However, what makes this production worthy of its own celebratory column is a creative ethos that refuses to be beaten by the limitations of social distancing. Using techniques that might well have been familiar to those who created cartoons in that medium’s early days, the team has created a visual delight that beggars belief and, if we did not know better, has been defying the rules. You could swear that groups of actors are performing in close physical proximity, even though watching the closing titles with some “making of” scenes in the background shows that that is not the case.
The overall impact combines the joy of watching a carefully planned and impeccably directed stage production with the visual imagination that is more usually associated with video games or blockbuster movies.
Readers are urged to tap into the recording before it ends on the last day of January, both to see what is possible in this brave new world but also to get inspired by a piece that is to date undoubtedly the best, most coherent and inventive online production of this terrible era.
The hope must be that other directors and producers might now see this as a challenge and borrow some of the techniques and ideas in an attempt to create something even better.