Usually in December, the thoughts of most theatre folk, not to mention their eager young customers, are concentrated on pantomimes and Christmas shows, while others are turning their minds to the excitement of New Year openings.
However, in 2020, everything is so different, with no certainty about what will happen next year. Indeed, rather than the next big musical or play from Sir Tom Stoppard, the main excitement rests on the efficacy of unproven vaccines, which might enable a return to relative normality at some point in 2021.
Whether this happens at the beginning of summer, at its end or some time later is still a matter for conjecture.
Perhaps more than ever, those with an interest in this wonderful medium will be keen to give and receive meaningful gifts. Not only are we potentially going to be divided from our loved ones but they will have a great deal more time to appreciate (or denigrate) anything that we choose to send.
Here are a few ideas to cover all budgets, bearing in mind the painful reality that some readers may not have seen any income in nine months or more and the vast majority are likely to be considerably poorer than they were 12 months ago.
The industry needs our help more than ever and therefore one could make a good case for converting gifts for those that already have everything into donations to theatres or the acquisition of tickets, in the full knowledge that the shows may be postponed or never go ahead.
For this reader, there is one book published this year that is head and shoulders above all of the competition. That is Hermione Lee’s magisterial biography of Tom Stoppard. It may be a hefty investment, in every sense of the adjective, but this book will give great pleasure to anyone interested in the work of a man who is arguably Britain’s greatest living playwright.
It will also be a bittersweet reminder that, for many, the best play that opened in the brief period before our lives were irretrievably diminished was Sir Tom’s Leopoldstadt.
As a very different alternative, it is pleasing to be able to commend the intriguing L.A. Theatre Works Audio Docudrama Series. This was not only a really good read but also an inspiration, addressing serious political issues in a meaningful fashion.
On the novel front, the two outstanding choices are Actress by Anne Enright, which does what it says on the front cover, and Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell, less about Shakespeare than one might imagine but a cracking novel that has already begun to win awards.
Music and Video
Many may conclude that friends and relations are in need of the musical equivalent to comfort food, which could be anything from the back catalogue, in a wide-range, might encompass an opera composed by Puccini or Mozart, or a musical in the range from The Sound of Music to Hamilton.
From this year’s offerings in the latter category, perhaps the best bet might be the star-studded recording of Les Misérables: The Staged Concert. This has also been released on DVD and Blu-ray.
Elsewhere, Matthew Bourne has opened up his iconoclastic dance version of Romeo and Juliet to a wider audience via DVD and Blu-ray.
Perhaps the greatest benefit that has arisen from a miserable year characterised by what can sometimes feel like house arrest is the development of online theatrical offerings.
At the pricier end of the scale, monthly or annual subscriptions to channels run by the likes of the Metropolitan Opera House in New York and the National Theatre in London will give great pleasure.
Looking slightly further afield, Stratford Festival from Ontario also offers a subscription channel, which features the best Shakespeare productions around and has been expanded with recordings of other classic dramas.
These days, the major streaming channels are also getting on the bandwagon with opportunities to watch (and re-watch) the likes of Hamilton, The Prom and David Byrne’s American Utopia. In some cases, it may be possible to pay to view a single musical, while other companies require a fixed monthly or annual subscription.
On the plus side, there may be an option to enter a short trial, giving an opportunity to see that much-loved classic. The pleasure will still be the same but readers will have to decide for themselves whether access to a free subscription counts as a valid Christmas present or leaves them open to accusations of getting too close to imitating one of the most popular figures at this time of year, Ebenezer Scrooge.
At this difficult time, it could easily be argued that the best present we can give to anyone we love is something that cost nothing: the gift of safety. If you are planning to meet up with friends or relations over the five-day break, please take the greatest care.