Most theatrical folk have had their hands full over the last 10 months.
It is bad enough at the best of times trying to ply your trade as an actor-director or even freelance journalist, putting up with constant rejections and balancing potential opportunities with the need to feed the family. Throw in a pandemic and many will have been in despair, relying on alternative employment and hoping that the world can achieve some kind of normality before too much of 2021 has passed.
Then Brexit came along. Boris Johnson used to pride himself as Britain’s Donald Trump, but while the former American president (I love that phrase) was trying to Make America Great Again, his pale imitation preferred a different historical precedent, hoping to turn us all into Little Englanders.
Just when most of those in the arts thought that the situation couldn’t get worse, Britain’s decision to leave Europe with an almost non-existent deal could have a devastating impact on the community, although to be fair, many of those in the theatre will suffer far less than those in other sectors, particularly musicians.
There are a number of issues that theatre companies and practitioners will need to address once the prospect of reviving their stock in trade becomes a reality again. First, to the extent that they wish to utilise the services of performers, backstage staff and administrators with European connections, there will be a series of hurdles to overcome before, say, a Dutch woman can comply with the new immigration rules.
Inevitably, these will slow down the process but also mean significant additional costs for new arrivals. Even those who are here already will need to go through the rigmarole of establishing that they have settled status. The likely consequence is a large reduction in the number of European practitioners working in the United Kingdom.
Anybody who heard cellist Steven Isserlis speaking so passionately and cogently on the Today programme earlier this week will immediately realise that the problem is potentially much wider. He is one of over 100 signees, including everyone from Sir Paul McCartney and Sir Elton John to Sir Simon Rattle, to a letter protesting the problems that musicians will now face, including the need to apply and pay for visas and equipment carnets for each different country that they plan to visit. Touring theatre practitioners and companies will face identical obstacles.
From his perspective, until our government gets around to negotiating some kind of artist’s passport, it may be impractical to arrange either for orchestras or theatre companies to come from European countries to the United Kingdom or those from this country who wish to tour around Europe to do so.
The average theatregoer probably imagines that almost nobody involved in their pleasurable nights out has any kind of European connections. In some cases, that may be true. In many others, there could be several people working on a production behind the scenes who hail from the other side of the English Channel. If nothing else, if there is a shortage of bar staff and ushers, that will increase the cost of staging a production. For the moment, given that Britain is likely to be suffering from terrifyingly high unemployment rates, that may not be too much of an issue, but in the longer term it seems inevitable that costs will go up.
It may be a coincidence, but since the start of the year, this writer has noticed a significant increase in the prices of many supermarket goods. To the extent that items used in theatres are sourced from Europe, that is likely to become a familiar theme, with the possibility of tariffs, VAT and other duties added to purchases of (say) costumes or lighting gizmos.
Even ignoring some of these relatively peripheral considerations, theatres like London’s Barbican as well as those that take part in the Edinburgh International Festival and, to a lesser extent, the Fringe have tended to make significant use of companies from Germany, France, the Netherlands and Belgium to name a few. If this becomes a logistical impossibility, then we will all be the poorer. Some of my most enjoyable nights in recent years have been courtesy of the likes of the Schaubühne and Comédie Française.
It might be reckless to write this article without reading the 1,200 pages of the European departure agreement but, as a result, I have not got to the bottom of whether these issues will also impact on relations between the UK and the Republic of Ireland, although I think it unlikely that there will be any major problems relating to anything going backwards and forwards from Northern Ireland. Having said that, there could well be delays as a result of additional form-filling even between these two different nations of the United Kingdom.
The obvious conclusion is that, to a greater or lesser extent, our lives are likely to be impoverished as result of another example of this government’s failure to consider the needs of cultural organisations.