Theatre has long been home to angels and fairy godmothers and boy does it need a few of them at the moment. Ironically, what it needs even more is a Marcus Rashford to shame the government into taking precipitate action before the medium that so many of us love disappears forever.
That could be part of the problem. The current administration might very reasonably claim that it has greater priorities than helping a few luvvies and their rich patrons out of a bind. Without wishing to cast unjust aspersions, there is also a possibility that the prosaic bunch who are currently trying to keep the country afloat do not have any great affection for the arts. That is almost certainly becoming the view of the great and the good in the industry, led by the redoubtable Sonia Friedman.
Frankly, it would not be unkind to suggest that we are getting sick of the statistics which tell us that 70% of theatres will have closed by the end of the year, with hundreds of thousands losing their jobs as a result. We would much rather get some action that makes these facts redundant. However, until Prime Minister Johnson along with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, and the Minister for Culture, Oliver Dowden, see sense, I fear that we are going to be assailed with this information on a constant basis.
Given that this is a government that is far more comfortable with pounds and pence than things of beauty, you would think that other pertinent statistics pointing out that the theatre industry is worth billions to the nation every year might hit home but, once again, they appear to be falling on deaf ears.
The latest attempt to get the message across comes in the form of a five-page open letter to that trio of powerbrokers signed by SOLT, BECTU, Equity, Independent Theatre Council, Live Comedy Association and the Musicians Union, as well as no fewer than 98 leading cultural figures, everybody alphabetically from Adrian Scarborough to Zizi Strallen.
Impressively, every single one of the signatories is a 2020 Olivier Award nominee or 2019 UK Theatre Award winner and the list also includes theatrical knights Sir Tom Stoppard, Sir Trevor Nunn and Sir Matthew Bourne along with global big-hitters such as Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Petula Clark, Toby Jones, Wendell Pierce, Andrew Scott and James McAvoy.
The message is simple enough but it bears repetition on a constant basis until it finally hits its target. The opening paragraphs should be enough to make a difference, if any one of the Cabinet trio can be bothered to read them.
“We are concerned that British theatre is on the brink of ruin.
Theatre is one of the UK’s most dazzling success stories. In all its forms, whether drama, musical theatre, opera or dance, British theatre is a world-class cultural and economic force with productions filling venues from Broadway to Beijing.
The pandemic has bought theatre to its knees”.
This hard-nosed critic has been brought close to tears on reading this far, without getting further reminders about the impossibility of distancing at even a 1m level, let alone 2m, the incredible cultural contribution that goes way beyond entertaining twice as many people each year as football and the spiritual and economic tragedy that is becoming ever nearer by the day.
The key requests are those put to the DCMS Parliamentary select committee by Julian Bird last week.
- Sustain the workforce through the continuation and development of the Job Retention Scheme and a new package to support the army of freelancers and self-employed artists who create so much of our work.
- Support theatre recovery, through adaptations to the existing theatre production tax relief scheme, support for businesses that supply theatres and aid with making venues COVID-19 secure.
- Safeguard the future of the theatre industry through an Emergency Relief Fund and the creation of a new Cultural Investment Participation Scheme for the sector from government: a national pledge for culture.
The irony is that, while the great and the good are banging their heads against this brick wall, the difference will probably only come when theatre elevates its own Marcus Rashford, someone who can find one of the Prime Minister’s numerous Achilles heels and, having done so, utilise the media to become a force for change.
With theatres now disappearing at an alarming rate and the furlough scheme soon to limit support before disappearing completely in the autumn, there is very little time to find that saviour.