Almost every reader will be familiar with this line uttered by the wyrd sisters in Macbeth. However, never before have we had the chance to understand its pertinence as vibrantly and violently as we do today.
Shakespeare wrote in plague times and we now live in plague times. For 80% of English citizens, the answer to the witches’ question is “I don’t know”.
It is literally against the law for three people other than those from a single household to meet. The impact that this has on theatre is devastating, as we have all discovered.
Listening to Andrew Marr’s perceptive interview with Sir Nicholas Hytner, our loss became even starker. As the Artistic Director of the Bridge so eloquently reminded listeners, the main appeal of theatre going is an opportunity to commune with hundreds or thousands of similarly minded people.
Indeed, for any regular critic, one of the joys of spending three or four nights a week in darkened rooms was the opportunity to chat with other critics about plays of the past, those of the future and often just life in general, perhaps the test match score, someone’s new baby or upcoming novel.
As 2021 commences, nobody can get together with friends in London, Manchester or Newcastle, whether indoors or out, let alone fill a theatre, whether socially distanced or not.
Every cultural venue in the United Kingdom is currently closed for an indeterminate period, while those who worked in the industry at beginning of last year have been forced to face up to the reality that opportunities in the future could be few and far between.
As far as this writer is aware, nobody has carried out a recent survey of both employed and self-employed thespians to discover how many have given up their hopes and dreams forever, perhaps regretfully persuaded by government advertising that a safe office job, an opportunity to deliver packages for Amazon or even shelf-stacking in the local supermarket is a more realistic long-term career option.
This is terribly sad. Watching high quality productions recorded and broadcast online is often a pleasure but it cannot replace the frisson that one derives from sitting with 1,000 other people at the National Theatre waiting for the curtain to go up on whatever delight Rufus Norris has chosen to offer.
If that is the feeling of members of the paying public, imagine the greater emotional loss felt by the actors who desire nothing more than to entertain as all, an impulse shared with directors, backstage staff and, in many cases, those who work front of house in theatres.
That is without even considering the fact that many people in these categories can literally no longer afford to live in the flat or house that they were occupying when theatres went dark in mid-March.
The good news is that there is cause for hope. The government has now approved two separate vaccines that together should provide enough doses to cover everybody who wants one. This must include all theatregoers, since there is a distinct possibility that, in future, venues will not allow people to attend without a vaccine passport.
While Matt Hancock seems to believe that we will have normality by spring, he may have inadvertently missed out 2022 from that sentence. At best, there has to be a chance that, at some point in the summer, outdoor productions could be presented relatively normally, while if all goes to plan (with this government’s record on logistical projects?) we might be talking about the autumn.
There are far too many questions that remain unanswered about both the virus and the vaccine for this to be a likelihood, let alone a certainty. Playing around with an admittedly flawed vaccine calculator, the average 40-year-old is probably not going to receive their first inoculation until the end of 2022.
This means that, once again, the industry is going to be reliant on government for support. Logically, if £1.57 billion was required to keep the arts alive for the year to 31 March 2021, Rishi Sunak should already be budgeting for a similar amount to cover the following 12 months—and that modest sum relies on the extension of furlough.
If Sir Nicholas Hytner’s faith in the heretofore hidden artistic lives of the Cabinet is correct, that announcement should arrive in the Budget speech on 3 March. However, some cynical readers might wonder whether statements of support from Boris Johnson and Oliver Dowden were actually composed by speechwriters and trotted out without thought or sincerity.
The strongest argument that the theatre industry has for government support remains entirely economic and commercial. As so many have been saying over the last nine months, theatre provides a massive balance of payments surplus for UK PLC and, if the government inadvertently kills it off, we will all literally be the poorer.
Happy New Year.