Given all that has happened in the intervening period, it is astonishing that, seven weeks ago, West End theatres were operating normally.
Already, when watching plays online, it comes as a surprise to see actors standing within 6 feet of each other or, perish the thought, shaking hands, kissing or getting even more intimate.
Most of us will have been pining for a return to the spaces that we love ever since that fateful time.
Many of those in the industry will have been struggling financially both personally and on a corporate level. The uncertainty hardly helps, since none of us knows when we will see those illusory green shoots reappear, let alone have the opportunity to enjoy a night out watching favourite stars performing to a packed-out auditorium.
Last week, Rufus Norris was interviewed and set out a stark timeline. Although he envisaged a number of different scenarios, the Artistic Director of the National Theatre seemed far from confident at the prospect that the venue will be reopening this year. He even put out a suggestion that the building could be closed for a full 12-month period until next spring. None of us knows.
In this context, it is natural to start seeking evidence from other parts of the world.
The United States is currently in denial. Georgia has apparently reopened theatres as normal. This could quite conceivably lead to two extreme alternatives. First, there may be no problems at all. At the other end of the scale, many people could fall ill as a direct result of attempting to enjoy a night out at the theatre in, say, Atlanta.
A more measured approach is being taken in Spain, which has suffered nearly as badly as the United Kingdom. According to the BBC, the Prime Minister, Pedro Sanchez, has announced that, as part of the lockdown relaxation, “theatres and cinemas will reopen from late May, but again must be no more than a third full.”
This seems to make little sense from a number of perspectives:
- Judging by this writer’s last visit to the National Theatre, at a bare minimum, eight other people were within the statutory 6 feet, while if one were to take out a measure, that number could probably be trebled.
- Rufus Norris proudly proclaims that occupancy in his theatres runs somewhere in excess of 90%. Even then, it struggles to make ends meet.
- It doesn’t take an accountancy qualification to work out that 33% occupancy, with almost all of the costs remaining the same can never be financially viable.
- It might not be easy to programme plays in which cast members maintain social distancing rules.
- Many of the most popular shows are now sold on the back of performances by international superstars. At the moment, it is hard to conceive that they will be allowed to travel, be willing to brave a country in the grip of coronavirus or be affordable in this tricky financial climate.
- The only way that this can work is if the government decides that theatre is a vital part of the community and is willing to underwrite the losses and ignore some of the rules.
None of us can have any idea of how the coronavirus epidemic will play out. There has to be every prospect that an initial relaxation of the rules will be followed by an even tighter lockdown, as infection figures begin to soar.
What seems certain is that some theatre companies will disappear forever. Many workers will also leave the associated professions, either through financial need or merely deciding that pursuing an activity they love is no longer viable.
There are tough times ahead but it is still lovely to imagine that day, whenever it may come, in which we will be sitting in a full theatre enjoying a dramatic masterpiece.