One hates to be critical of the same government minister twice in a week, but it does appear that Oliver Dowden’s qualifications to be the minister in charge of theatre are tenuous to say the least.
Having had time for further reflection, the government’s £1.57 billion contribution to the cultural sector should be seen as an attempt to fob off arty types with a big number that will prove itself to be grossly inadequate within a couple of months. However, even that seems like a brave attempt to pay a little more than lip service to the industry, when compared with his announcement yesterday that outdoor theatres could open tomorrow.
It may have passed the minister by, but putting on a play is not quite the same as inventing a policy. This is not something that can be achieved overnight, especially when you apply numerous conditions over and above the normal requirements. Even if he had announced on Thursday that a play could open on the Saturday less than two days hence, there would be several problems.
First, the play has to be selected, next a director appointed and then a cast cast. Each of these processes takes a considerable time. The task probably wouldn’t occur to a politician but it might be helpful if the actors had also managed to learn their lines in advance of performing.
In a dream world, they might even have been shown where to stand and how to move by the director, while set designers would not generally be expected to design sets overnight, let alone be confident that they would be appropriately lit without lengthy consultations with an expert in that field.
In that the staff at pretty much every theatre in the country will currently be on furlough, if they haven’t already been made redundant, bringing them back in harness might also take a little longer than 36 hours.
Then we get to the fun bits. The lengthy government document on outdoor performance is a treat, guaranteed to cure even the worst case of insomnia, although leaders may just be kept awake laughing out loud at some of the proposals.
Without going into very great detail, I’m looking forward to seeing performers facing away from each other throughout the play, although perhaps directors might prefer a suggested alternative, the imposition of screens between them.
This critic has been struggling to come up with a play that might fit the bill and, at present, something involving knights of old who spend the whole evening holding up shields to prevent deadly germs from hitting their comrades could be the best bet.
However, all of this is setting the cart before the horse. The best news of all is that theatre management and administrators will have had to prepare a full-scale risk assessment before opening up their spaces, an exercise that is going to be challenging given only a day in which the complete the project.
The rules on social distancing are typically vague, going no further than stating that this is a necessity. 2m will mean that audience capacity cannot be greater than around 25%, while even at 1m with that mythical plus attached only takes us up to about 30%, perhaps 35% if you insist that the audience is largely composed of family groups.
It is unclear whether any of these regulations can be modified if everyone wears masks, since the government still hasn’t made up its mind about these helpful little lifesavers. The point will be particularly challenging for actors, since now that so many do not get proper vocal training, expressing themselves outdoors through masks could be a step too far, even if air traffic is currently limited.
Mr Dowden’s expectation that Glyndebourne might be an early beneficiary may also be ill-founded. The main opera house is indoors, which might be an impediment at present, although it also plans to present some outdoor work this summer. In addition, those steeped in the art form will quickly recognise that if singing is a likely way to convey the virus and as such is strongly discouraged, that might make opera less desirable to all but a lunatic fringe category of desperate aficionados.
Having established all of that, there is then the issue of getting audiences and actors to and from the theatre safely, let alone in and out of their respective spaces. On the plus side, toilets can be open, although the theatre will properly have to set aside much of their share of the coronavirus handout to pay for a team of cleaners whose services will be constantly in use to comply with government guidelines.
It is possible that Oliver Dowden intended this announcement to be something more than a PR stunt to show that he had heard of Glyndebourne and Cornwall’s Minack Theatre, but at first sight it is quite hard to see how readers can regard it as anything else.