Perhaps there is hope after all. It has taken 11 months but, at long last, Mr U-turn himself has finally listened to the scientists and logicians and pronounced in favour of a sensible new philosophy.
From now on, when determining how to lift lockdown measures Boris Johnson has claimed that he is committed to taking steps that are “irreversible”. Given all of the uncertainty throughout the pandemic, with reversals often made within a day or two of inadequately considered changes to plans, this must be welcome news.
Indeed, had the government pursued this policy throughout the course of the pandemic, it might have saved many theatre companies from a great deal of effort and heartache, not to mention expense. In particular, allowing theatres to reopen at the beginning of December only to close them again within a week or so, given that all of the underlying data strongly suggested that this would be the case, was particularly cruel.
By way of contrast, Broadway theatres and smaller venues in New York have been closed for the duration, waiting out the storm in order to ensure that they will be able to reopen on a pragmatic, presumably commercial, basis at some undefined point in the future.
The big question is what all of this will mean for theatres in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland having separate governments and therefore possibly different rules. One would have to imagine that one consequence of this decision will be a delay in most areas of relaxation until infection levels have diminished considerably.
Theatres are not going to be anywhere near the top of the list, which means that any venue hoping to reopen in the near future is unlikely to be satisfied with the roadmap when it is finally announced to the public. From various comments and leaks to the media, our best hope of entertainment in the summer is going to come from outdoor venues. Based on information from its tame, frequently ignored scientists, the government seems to have decided that outdoor activities are considerably safer than anything that could take place indoors, which is a conclusion that few are likely to dispute.
Following these murmurings, there has already been a limited amount of press coverage suggesting that some building-based theatres are trying to put together a strategy which will include the creation of outdoor theatres to use in the summer of 2021. Even then, it is likely that audiences will be socially distanced and obliged to wear masks, which is far from ideal but will at least allow theatre lovers to love theatre again.
That brings us to the much knottier problem of getting indoor theatre back to something like normal.
Realistically, it is hard to imagine big budget musicals with large casts and packed houses reappearing at any time this year. Depending on how the vaccine rollout develops and the frequency and virulence of mutations, there could be a very much longer wait before we can achieve that goal. Then again, if everything goes swimmingly, with rapid testing and vaccine passports becoming both reliable and viable, there could be cause for optimism about a reasonably healthy 2021 panto season.
Given these parameters, theatre managers once again have to decide whether they are willing to consider reopening with audiences at 33% or possibly 50% of capacity, thereby ensuring a built-in financial loss, even with cutdown productions featuring tiny casts and minimalist sets.
None of this bodes well for our industry but the alternative with theatres opening and closing every couple of months or even every couple of weeks, at almost no notice, would surely be sending a chill through the hearts of producers, artistic directors and maybe even theatregoers.