We are not yet through the first week in 2022 and there are already enough signs to suggest that theatre on both sides of the Atlantic is having a tough time. A few anecdotes will demonstrate the kinds of issues that so many theatres and, by extension, prospective visitors are facing.
On the fifth day of January, bearing in mind that the first three were effectively public holidays, one of our London-based critics informed a press agent that “I've had two postponements and a cancellation already since New Year!” That is not unrepresentative of what appears to be happening across the capital and the country at the moment. Shows are opening and closing at no notice, while others, including the National Theatre’s appropriately named Hex, failed even to make opening night.
While single shows struggling is bad enough, there was also a closure announcement from producers at the Vault Festival, which had been due to open later this month. Their words cogently explain the dilemma faced by so many at the moment. “VAULT Creative Arts have made the gut-wrenching decision to cancel the 2022 VAULT Festival. Since the emergence of the Omicron variant, the team have been exploring options to allow them to deliver the tenth anniversary Festival safely and successfully but all of these were found to put staff and artists at risk.”
Since the festival was due to feature in the region of 600 shows from almost as many creative teams, this means that many small theatre companies will have spent a great deal of time and money on projects that will now be lost for ever.
The decision by the folks behind the London-based festival to accept the inevitable and cut their losses has been mirrored in New York by The Public which has cancelled Under the Radar and AMAS Musical Theatre, who have done the same with its “Dare to be Different” new musicals event.
West End theatres are also grappling with the kinds of problems that nobody will have experienced between the Second World War and March 2020. Naming names would be invidious but one of the highest profile theatres in the country recently staged a Shakespeare production with two of the leading roles played by stand-ins (understudy would not appear to be the appropriate term in the circumstances) reading from scripts.
An equally prestigious West End theatre produced a two-hander in which both big-name actors fell ill simultaneously meaning that audience members were informed only a couple of hours before curtain time that they could either watch understudies or switch their tickets to another show later in the year.
Judging by information coming from New York, as many shows are struggling to remain open there as here, while ticket agencies are outdoing themselves in their efforts to reduce ticket prices as they attempt to persuade wary theatregoers to risk the ravages of the Omicron variant. A fair selection of the best straight plays and even some musicals are now offering tickets starting at $29. In most cases, this will be less than 50% of the starting prices two years ago, which is depressing news for producers, who would normally expect to pass on inflationary cost increases.
While we all feel great sympathy for theatres under this kind of strain, problems like this caused by the pandemic are not good news for their public profile and many prospective visitors might be reluctant to book tickets in advance given the risk that they may not be able to enjoy the full experience.
That ignores the additional problem that they, relatives and companions might fall ill or be forced into self-isolation just before the big day, not to mention the additional danger that with one in 10 Londoners currently victims of the virus, theatregoers might catch it either en route or at a venue, even if everyone present is wearing some kind of facial covering and has been vaccinated (up to a point).
The government has now made it pretty clear that it takes no responsibility for anything to do with coronavirus and, if appearances can be believed, seems keen to progress towards herd immunity, which may in any event provide little or no immunity against the next variant to come along.
This is a disaster for many different industries, including theatres. One might imagine a more responsible government would provide some kind of insurance or compensation and funding to protect one of the jewels in this nation’s crown. At the very least, it might be time for ministers to get a grip and demand that if public spaces are to be filled with those who could spread a virus that is still capable of killing, at the very least high-grade masks should be compulsory.
As so often over the last 21 months, we all have to hope that this is a low point and we can all look to a much brighter future. Realistically, the next two or three months are unlikely to offer much solace but let us hope that after Easter theatres really can go back to business as usual.