There are two conflicting trends that will eventually determine how the British theatrical landscape looks this summer. To avoid depressing readers, we will ignore the third option which is another lockdown should virus rates become rampant again.
On the one hand, if Boris Johnson is to be believed (despite yesterday’s dire warnings about the PM’s veracity from his angry former ministerial colleague Johnny Mercer), coronavirus will effectively cease on 21 June and the country can follow the path to freedom from that date. Some might point out that 21 June was originally an earliest date but that has long been forgotten.
On that basis, all theatres will be able to reopen with capacity audiences in late June, tourists will be packing the streets of London and every other major city around the world and life will be back to normal. A number of theatres seem happy to operate on this assumption. They are the ones that will be opening their doors on 17 May to 50% capacity, non-socially distanced audiences and building to 100% a month later.
The alternative view is becoming increasingly visible. This is that the summer of 2021 is still going to be difficult but there are opportunities.
The Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre has been operating for generations and is perfectly placed to offer the public exactly what it is yearning for, relatively safe outdoor theatre of the highest quality. Similarly, Sam Wanamaker’s Shakespeare’s Globe has become a regular fixture over the last couple of decades and seems set to have a strong, if interval-less year, restrictions permitting.
In many cases, taking advantage of promised government funding or loans, other theatres are announcing the establishment of outdoor venues, which should bridge the gap. Three new kids on the outdoor block have recently announced details about ambitious plans.
Having been forced to abandon its programme in 2020, the Edinburgh International Festival has come up with the novel idea of leaving its traditional venues and creating three outdoor spaces comprising open-sided marquees on parks or squares.
The RSC is considerably more ambitious with its 500-seat, space age Lydia & Manfred Gorvy Garden Theatre, details of which were announced yesterday. According to Artistic Director Gregory Doran, this new space, due to open in July as part of its Summer of Reconnection, will be “a symbol of regeneration”.
Most producers appear to have decided that, whether socially distanced or not, theatregoers are hankering to get back into theatres, regardless of the safety or otherwise of the visit. Doran is probably more realistic, having hit an uncomfortable nail on the head when stating in a Guardian interview that, “we still don’t know whether people are going to feel like coming back into the theatre space in a socially distanced manner or not.”
It goes without saying that the government’s plans to reopen without social distancing will be even more worrying to the cautious.
On a smaller scale, in June, ever-enterprising East London fringe venue Arcola is planning to launch its new outdoor theatre, bar and community hub, Arcola Outside, close to its home in Dalston.
Nobody knows how the summer is going to play out but many might feel that the adventure shown by these theatres and others up and down the United Kingdom deserves to be rewarded with success and might be a further stepping stone back towards the normality that we all crave.