Given the original prognosis that 70% of theatres were likely to close by the end of last year as a result of the pandemic, the theatre community can almost certainly withstand lesser losses with impunity.
Although it had previously been far from obvious, over the last year, theatres have tacitly determined that the interval should become a historical relic. The decision makes perfect sense in that one or more breaks between different parts of a play well inevitably lead to massive mingling of audience members. In a world where any human interaction could lead to the transmission of a deadly virus, that was clearly beyond the pale.
Thinking calmly and logically, losing the interval is hardly great news but one might reasonably compare the situation in the United Kingdom with that in New York, where not only has the intermission (notice the semantics) not made an appearance for the last year, but neither have any plays on either side of it.
In any event, most of the indoor theatrical presentations during 2020 tended to feature a cast that could fit in a telephone booth and a running time that rarely exceeded 90 minutes. Even those with sensitive bladders could usually survive that long without needing a mad dash from the auditorium, while the idea of congregating in a bar or café became either worrying or illegal, depending on the timing.
However, it has taken an announcement by Shakespeare’s Globe to bring the topic into the headlines. Following the logic above, the powers that be at the open-air theatre have reluctantly decided to ditch the interval, at least during their 2021 season.
If any theatre needed an interval, it was Shakespeare’s Globe. Typically; their productions run at around three hours, though many are even longer. To add to the difficulties, with all due respect to age-old tradition, the wooden bench seating would win any prize for the least comfortable in a theatre, while a significant proportion of the audience choose to become groundlings and stand in the pit.
It will be interesting to see exactly how the theatre chooses to operate, but one imagines that patrons will be informed that they are able to come and go at will, possibly constrained from causing too much disruption during more sensitive moments such as any of Hamlet’s soliloquies.
Will we miss intervals? An immediate reaction might be that they were periods of nothingness in between hours of viewing pleasure. Even so, especially during long Shakespearean dramas, whether history plays or tragedies, the opportunity to stretch one’s legs, chat about something inane and grab a bite to eat or something to drink was welcome. At the Globe, for those in the pit it also presented a chance to sit down and recover equilibrium for a few minutes.
Do not whisper this too loudly, but it was also an opportunity for tourists to escape without embarrassment of having a thousand pairs of eyes watching them demonstrating their cultural inadequacies.
There may not be any tourists in Britain these days, but this critic knows a number of keen London theatregoers who also availed themselves of the opportunity to disappear at the interval, should the presentations not meet their frequently impossibly high expectations.
Looked at from the other end of the transaction, the interval is/was also the time when theatres would derive a significant amount of income from sales of food, drink and merchandise. For some, this might have been the difference between turning a small profit and running at a loss, i.e survival or closure.
Does the interval / intermission have a future? In the short to medium term, while social distancing is still an obligation to protect the community from virus transmission, one would imagine that every theatre will need to follow the precedent set by Shakespeare’s Globe.
Looking further into the future, for the reasons set out in this article, the interval will almost certainly make a welcome comeback. That will also be an indication that life has returned to normal and therefore we should all be looking forward to the big day with fervent hope.