2020 has been a tumultous year for British theatre - oh yes it has! What's in store for Christmas and beyond?
By Mica Anderson
The past few months have been incredibly chaotic for multiple industries - and I’ve written multiple times about how the arts have been affected here in the UK by the coronavirus pandemic. As we approach the Christmas period, usually flush with Nativity performances, carol singers trotting door to door, and boozy trips to the local panto, live performance is feeling sorely missed. So, encompassing all that’s happened in these few crucial months, and the recent announcement in England regarding theatre re-openings in certain tiers, what lies ahead?
Well, to put it shortly, no-one really knows. If COVID-19 has shown us anything, it is how quickly we can become fatigued. Compared to now, it was all too easy to lock up shop in March, with plenty of warmth to accompany us on our daily walks, and it was made all the more sweet by the freedom that the hot summer months allowed. But we are deep into a cold and unforgiving winter, with cases peaking once more. General anxiety and low moods that were already felt because of the pandemic are now exacerbated by dreaded seasonal depression, and though vaccine news has been uplifting, there is no end date to the pandemic in sight - nor has one been promised. And now, in the run-up to the holiday season, a second lockdown, militant restrictions on seeing family and friends, and cancellation of usual festivities are what is laid out before us - notwithstanding our five-day Christmas allowance that scientists assure will cause another spike in cases.
Additionally, there’s not exactly been votes of confidence from government officials for the theatre industry, or the arts in general. In October, Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak came under fire for the comments he made in an ITV interview in regards to unemployment rates due to the pandemic. While his comments - the infamous, controversial ‘those in the arts should re-train’ were misquoted, he didn’t exactly paint a rousing picture of how the government will seek to support these hard-hit industries. While it’s true there’s been a degree of financial support from the government for the time being, it is unfortunately fruitless when they cannot put their money where their mouth is, so to speak. That is, by branding these jobs as unviable - even for the time being - we characterise them as something you can balance along with another side gig to support yourself, or even an avenue that you shouldn’t even bother pursuing in our current economic climate. This is extremely damaging to the next generation of musicians, theatre-makers, and other creatives. To say that the arts have been unessential for the last few months is not only a baseless opinion to have, but an inherently wrong one - simply take a look at the escapism that the arts have provided in our time of emotional need.
Later in October, a virtual Olivier Awards was held, honouring a year of fantastic British theatre - which feels like both a cruel joke and an oxymoron. Hosted by Jason Manford, who had just finished his own run of Curtains on the West End (which, by the way, is a deliciously camp and horrendously underrated musical), and it featured plenty of fan favourites - Andrew Scott won for his performance in Present Laughter (also deliciously camp), Dear Evan Hansen took best new musical, and Ian McKellan - well, just for being Ian McKellan, I suppose. And there was one major consistency - every acceptance speech sought to highlight the importance of theatre to British culture as a whole, and its effect on our downtrodden spirits. Indeed, I saw a streamed version of Present Laughter during the very brief moment where we were allowed to visit cinemas. It was a rush of serotonin like no other; to simply be in close proximity to live theatre felt affronting; my enjoyment of the play was underlined with constant thoughts of ‘how are all the audience members so close together? Is that allowed?’
As we come into December, tough decisions were made at the behest of the government regarding Christmas-time shows - the National procuring Dick Whittington, Les Miserables planning a star-studded holiday run, and regional theatres waiting in the wings (literally and figuratively) to see if the painstaking plans they had put in place to make performances as safe as possible would come to fruit. The uncertain present leads to an uncertain future. While theatre companies such as the National or RSC can afford mass overhauls of their theatres; or film equipment in order to stream their performances to televisions and computers, the most recent tier systems have decided the fate of many regional theatre companies - and it is not a good one. London, somewhat unsurprisingly, has received a go-ahead for theatrical performances to take place in the holiday season; but those in higher-tiered areas, and indeed us here in Scotland must go without. I suppose last year’s Christmas special of Gavin & Stacey will have to do.
So what’s next for theatre in 2021? I couldn’t even hazard a guess. I predict nothing much will change in the earlier months - but I hold out a small hope that as immunisations start to clear and the weather gets warmer, distanced and open-air performances may become a reality. Then there is the question of the Fringe, and the other festivals that usually accompany it - and while there is almost definitely something in the works, we haven’t heard about it just yet. It’s all I can hope for that by next Christmas, things will be relatively back to normal - or, perhaps, a new normal. A new normal where a trip to the panto is seen as a blessing, not a curse.