In June next year, lovers of farce will remember the greatest farceur of them all, Georges Feydeau on the centenary of his passing. In the meantime, many might be wondering whether the efforts of our haphazard Government are designed as a tribute to the master of absurdity.
Fans of Michael Frayn might be offended by the comparison with a Frenchman, given that their hero, very much living, has always been an expert in poking fun at ludicrous bureaucracy but even he might have struggled to achieve as many wry laughs as those running our country.
While the underlying message of this article was already brewing nicely, it came to a head on hearing an interview on the Today programme with the Chief Executive of the Resolution Foundation, Torsten Bell. Unlike the Minister responsible for the arts, Mr Bell has had the decency to consider the plight of theatres in England.
He did so in the light of the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s latest pronouncement, introducing the new furlough scheme that is not a furlough scheme, at least in Mr Sunak’s eyes if nobody else’s. This will provide a lifeline to businesses that are closed down by the Government in an announcement expected to be made by the Prime Minister on Monday with implementation inexplicably delayed for another two days, despite liberal leaks for a week beforehand.
The good news is that those businesses which qualify, i.e. have their trade closed down as a result of Government action, will be able to pay their staff at two-thirds of their normal salary up to a monthly maximum of £2,100 for the next six months, all funded by the Treasury. Such closures have already been implemented across wide swathes of Scotland and as so often England will now play copycat, with most areas across the North likely to follow suit in the coming week.
The dichotomy that Mr Bell identified relates to actions by the Scottish and UK governments. Nicola Sturgeon and her colleagues have formally determined that theatres in areas of particular danger must close. Boris Johnson and his pals appear to take the view that, while pubs and other areas of the hospitality industry must shut their doors for the foreseeable future, the same does not apply to theatres.
As a result, it would appear that employees of the Royal Lyceum in Edinburgh and the Citizens in Glasgow will be able to benefit from the pay subsidy, helping those theatres to keep afloat, but workers at the Royal Exchange in Manchester or West Yorkshire Playhouse are much more likely to be made redundant. We won’t even discuss the self-employed, neglected once again.
This cannot be right.
We are also getting to a critical point at which the Feydeau / Frayn farce element takes over with a vengeance. Assuming that London goes into lockdown in the near future as predicted by the Mayor, theatres such as the Bridge, which is currently operating, albeit at a presumed loss, will be desperately hoping that its plans are not scuppered by a formal government closure.
Others, like the vast majority in the West End, which have no choice but to remain closed for the foreseeable future, will be crossing their fingers (or in the case of Lord Lloyd Webber ringing friendly ministers of state) in the hope that those in power will follow the Scottish line.
We will find out much more over the next week regarding this uncomfortable situation, but even if the UK government announces that theatres will be obliged to lock up in order to prevent the spread of coronavirus, that is not the end of the story.
As of this moment, theatres are still awaiting news regarding grants or loans from the much-heralded but so far undistributed arts recovery fund and therefore could face a double whammy in the near future if the answer is either negative or a sum much lower than the amount needed.
Realistically, many have already been forced to borrow uncomfortably large amounts either directly from the government or from private sources. This puts their futures in doubt, even if salaries cease to be a major concern for the next few months and they can enjoy a business rates holiday.
That will help, but they will still incur other fixed costs such as rentals, interest payments, security and utility costs with no income, which is not a sustainable business model.
The story is far from over.