After over three months of silence, the government has finally released its opening salvo in what promises to be a long-running saga before theatres can reopen safely and productively.
It is to be noted that, as theatres continue to close forever and the industry seems on the brink of destruction, there is no mention of the desperately needed financial commitment.
Instead, Oliver Dowden, the Minister for Culture, has presented a five-point plan that sounds embarrassingly vague, considering the time that it is taken to come out and there are no dates attached to any of the proposals, which are:
- Physically distanced rehearsal and training with no audiences.
- Physically distanced performances for broadcast and recording purposes.
- Performances outdoors with an audience plus pilots for indoor performances with a limited distance audience.
- Performances allowed indoor/outdoors (but with a limited distance audience).
- Performances allowed indoor/outdoors (with a fuller audience indoors).
As an immediate reaction, the first two points are historical, since they are already permitted. This suggests that the document has been a long time in coming.
For the vast majority of theatres and theatregoers, points three and four are largely hypothetical, although some of those who are particularly keen for a thespian fix might just fancy spending a night very literally out praying that they have not picked the day on which the drought breaks in spectacular electric storms.
Ignoring the financial lacuna, the most worrying aspect of the plan is the fact that even the final piece of the jigsaw is not what anyone involved in theatre would be hoping for. Why use the word “fuller”, when the ultimate return to normality would be better expressed by saying “full”.
It is possible that this worrying limitation is merely loose use of language, although one would expect better from politicians and civil servants, who have clearly spent some time considering the topic.
The cynical might suggest that this is the kind of hopeless bluster that is intended to get people off the government’s back rather than lead the way towards true action.
In the last week or so, there have also been a number of other developments, some of which sound particularly far-fetched. Indeed, when this critic rather dazedly heard Lord Lloyd Webber on the Today programme talking about his latest project, he wondered whether this was a belated April Fools’ Day joke.
Apparently, his Lordship is so impressed by his team in South Korea, which is currently presenting The Phantom of the Opera to full houses on a nightly basis, that he decided to try and sell the concept to Londoners, not to mention a government that may well have more pressing commitments.
The plans definitely sound like something out of a sci-fi novel and not a very good one. The idea is that lots of clever little bits of technology will be combined to neutralise the virus. These include thermal imaging cameras to take the temperatures of staff and punters, self-cleaning door handles (I kid you not), regular antiseptic sprayings of anyone and everyone and even doors with air locks, presumably borrowed from the Starship Enterprise. The first step is a planned try-out at the London Palladium next month.
A step or two up on the credibility scale but not many is the announcement that Sir Ian McKellen is to play Hamlet in a production directed by Sean Mathias at the Theatre Royal Windsor. To add to the excitement of Sir Ian’s return to a role that he first played half a century ago, rehearsals are to start this coming Monday, though, given the current legal restrictions, they are unlikely to be particularly fruitful or wide-ranging.
Indeed, given that there do not appear to be firm dates for production yet, the aforementioned cynic might wonder whether the main aim of this press release is to remind readers of the existence of Bill Kenwright and his mammoth organisation.
However, in the longer term, the idea of an 81-year-old playing the Danish prince might lead to two contrary responses, depending upon readers’ recollections of recent productions at the Old Vic. At a similar age, Glenda Jackson was a superlative King Lear, while not too long before that, James Earl Jones and Vanessa Redgrave presented a disastrous version of Much Ado About Nothing that one fervently wishes was more forgettable.
Unlike each of the other announcements, which are shrouded in uncertainty, the delayed world première of Sleepless, A Musical Romance has now been slated to take place at Troubadour Wembley Park Theatre on 1 September 2020.
The intention is to present a socially distanced production that complies with government guidelines. The problem at the moment is that nobody knows what the government guidelines on gatherings indoors are likely to be in two weeks’ time, let alone two months. However, there must be at least a chance that this production will be the first relatively large-scale sign of theatre’s return.