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A year of theatrical lockdown


The house lights go down. Murmured conversations close, collective breath is held. A spotlight rests on a covered figure stage-left, and an eruption of ethereal guards is swept from the rear of the stalls by a second spot, dust-motes dancing expectantly in its wake. This is a fairy tale.

A fairy tale which is now just a vivid dream – or, rather, plain wishful thinking.

My growing obsession with the theatre was stopped in its tracks a year ago. I saw Endgame/Rough for Theatre II at the Old Vic then A Number at the Bridge Theatre in February, then fled to warmer climes for a spot of holiday sunshine. I’d already booked tickets for Shoe Lady at the Royal Court for my return. Who knew that I’d have to listen to it on the radio instead and my only 2020 viewing of Katherine Parkinson would be on Channel 4’s Taskmaster?

COVID-19 put paid to it all as theatres fell ‘dark’ indefinitely for the first time in living memory. The safety curtain descended one last time at the OV – their neon sign forlornly (but hopefully) displaying the words ‘We’ll be back’.

Not only plays, but concerts, gigs, cinema and sports events were postponed and then cancelled. ‘In-person’ audiences were banned. I would have to look for alternatives.

Early on, and with a new-found enthusiasm for Zoom (who knew?), I joined neighbourhood quizzes and video-met with family members I can normally go months without seeing. Like everyone else, I embraced the springtime over-sharing on YouTube, Facebook and Instagram. I could have spent all day watching hugely popular, often heart-warming or clever (and sometimes dire) clips of both famous and previously unknown ‘stars’ – flexing my digital viewing muscles in a shrunken cultural world. Daisy May Cooper and Sophie Ellis-Bextor became part of my online friendship group, welcomed enthusiastically by me (and millions of others) into my home – after all, no-one else could come in.

Big film releases were held back – what was the point in dropping a box-office smash into the locked-down small-screen environment or, once the cinema chains reopened with huge gaps in their seating, into the fearful climate which would keep so many people at home and suppress the all-important dollar returns? The elusive Mr Bond was so shaken by it all that he is yet to be stirred to cinematic release.

Television soldiered on, airing but sometimes rationing those programmes it already had in the bag, rescheduling others and panicking behind the scenes about its Autumn and Winter offerings. We quickly had the amazing Normal People to goggle at of course, which kept us chattering and Twittering (and blushing). There was also no better time for a box-set binge of all the stuff we’d previously been too busy to watch. No excuses for never having seen Succession now!

I guess actors in enforced ‘resting’ mode had to find something to do in the first lockdown, before the industry worked out how to manage Covid-safe filming.  David Tennant and Michael Sheen popped up in June in Staged – six inspired and joyful bite-sized episodes on the BBC.  Utilising the theme of Zoom meetings, by now our new normal, they reflected the lives of more than half the nation in its shift from face-to-face to face-to-screen-to-face. For sure, the timing of this production boosted its appeal, but honestly the value in it was as much the relatability of its stars as its dramatic content. We all like a bit of sleb-following, and these two – and the big-name guests – ticked that box at the time. Loved it. More new friends!

As the weeks rolled on, we were invited to catch up with previously recorded theatre productions, including a wonderful National Theatre NT Live season which aired some limited runs on YouTube (and later launched NT At Home which I have recently been devouring). I watched these as soon as they were released at a specific time on a Thursday evening, which somehow added to the feeling of being part of a real collective theatre audience. I’m sure there was a bit of neighbourly competitive watching going on too, if Facebook posts are anything to go by, despite an awkward clash with the clapping for the NHS. There are worse things to show off about.

I quickly acquired a cable to link my laptop to our main TV, rather than hunching over my small screen, and treated these re-runs as special events. As theatres have increased their streaming options, I’ve watched many more alone at my cluttered desk, and the power of performances can still be electrifying: Cyprus Avenue from the Royal Court (horrified), A Monster Calls from the Old Vic (floods of tears), Angels in America from the National (enthralled for 6 hours! In love with multiple characters) were particularly memorable.

So, television was surviving and the online world burgeoning, but how could I get my fix of live theatre? Via the small screen, of course!

I think The Old Vic was the first to experiment with live-streaming – “In Camera” – during the pandemic using Zoom for the two-hander hit Lungs – Matt Smith and Claire Foy reprising their critically acclaimed 2019 performances in a version with less physical connection onstage than back when we didn’t flinch at such on-stage intimacy. Using clever camera work and a split screen, Lungs played successfully against the backdrop of the empty theatre. I loved this, and joined with 12,000 other households in nearly 70 countries to watch it. Hurrah!!!

But otherwise, for a while we seemed to move into the new age of the monologue.

Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads monologues were broadcast on the BBC in the summer, with new actors for each of the ten original 1980s scripts (which, as I am so old, I remember from their first broadcast), plus a couple of completely new ones.  These certainly set a high bar for monologues, but nevertheless were televisual rather than theatrical. They were, however, later staged at the Bridge Theatre, along with some new works and it was these new ones I was very keen to see – not least because it would mean an actual trip to an actual theatre!

A new play by David Hare, Beat the Devil, was thus the first post-lockdown production I saw, swiftly followed by another Old Vic: In Camera live-streamed play from Stephen Beresford – Three Kings. Both were newly written one-man plays, starring Ralph Fiennes and Andrew Scott respectively. Big name writers and performers were luring me into this brave new world of tentative theatrical recovery. As they were both essentially monologues, this offered an interesting and immediate comparison: an actual ‘live in theatre’ show to a small masked audience, versus a ‘live but beamed to my living room’ performance.

I was looking forward not only to seeing Ralph Fiennes on stage for the first time, having only seen him in film before, but also to being back in an actual audience. I guess The Bridge’s flexible seating was designed to allow throngs of theatregoers to mingle amongst the action (in their wonderful Julius Caesar and Midsummer Night’s Dream for example), but it was now ensuring no mingling at all – and giving us the most exaggerated leg-room imaginable!

Beat the Devil – Bridge Theatre

In fact, my excitement ebbed as Beat the Devil played out. Essentially a recounting of the writer’s personal experience of Coronavirus infection and his response to the government’s management of the crisis, it was very relevant but quite static on an almost bare stage. This gave it an appropriate starkness for sure, but the political opinions felt more like Guardian newspaper articles to me – heartfelt, but I think I was just tired of all that, and there didn’t seem to be much entertainment around the messaging. Maybe that was the point, but it felt flat to me. Others seemed to like it more than I did – although my masked companion clearly liked it even less! Ah well, at least it had been an evening out, we’d had the ‘audience’ experience and we now had something new to bicker about. An unlikely bonus was being ushered out through previously unvisited corridors – a perfect novelty for a theatre-nerd like me. Is that sad?

I found Three Kings far more absorbing, even if there were no theatre corridors to explore. Written specifically for Andrew Scott to perform and depicting a developing father/son relationship over time, it certainly played to his nuanced character-acting strengths, whilst also lending itself to the closed-up and spartan Old Vic live-streamed production.

As with Lungs, Three Kings was broadcast live on Zoom, the deserted auditorium looming behind. Again, multiple cameras and a split-screen device were used, this time reflecting the different characters, voices and conversations of the delectable Mr Scott recounting a testing relationship with a largely absent father. This is where the presentation differed so much from Beat the Devil. Although this was still just one man, few props and very little physical action, here were multiple character portrayals, changes of mood and pace, facial close-ups of cruelty and grief.

Andrew Scott in my living room (Three Kings)

Sure, this streamed format is much less immediate, even though it is genuinely live and anything could go wrong (including the technology of course) and I can’t pretend that it was a true substitute for being in the theatre (no chance here to think you’ve caught your hero’s eye!), but the intensity of performance overcame the remoteness of being in my own living room looking at a screen. Other theatres have achieved better screen quality, but the raw emotion and shades of character presented here were properly affecting. Maybe the shaky filming added to the ‘live’-ness in a way. And for me, it felt important to know this was happening in real time, just a few miles up the railway line from me.

Curtain calls on one-way Zoom performances are truly odd, though. A living room standing ovation wouldn’t reach the stage, so we didn’t clap at all. We restricted ourselves to an understated “Ooh, that was very good”, perhaps reflecting a had-enough-of-this-lockdown torpor. Sorry Andrew!

I later saw Nine Lives by Zodwa Nyoni at the Bridge Theatre – again a one-man show, this time with Lladel Bryant in a story of a Zimbabwean asylum-seeker waiting to hear his fate. I attended with fewer expectations after Beat the Devil, but this was quite different. I liked the energy, the changes of character, clever use of minimal props, even some dancing in high heels (perhaps the highlight for me, maybe I’m just shallow) – all of which moved things along in a varied and interesting way, though of course it was basically still just a bloke on a stage. And I clapped and cheered along with strangers, and absorbed it all on the way home. It’s really not the same simply disconnecting the laptop and making a cup of tea.

The later OV:In Camera production of Brian Friel’s Faith Healer excitingly had three performers (Michael Sheen, Indira Varma and David Threlfall), but it was really a set of four monologues covering different points of view of the same events. I loved this too, although I confess to a slight disappointment when I realised there would be no on-stage interaction between the characters. I think I had been hoping to see an ensemble rather than a series of individual pieces. I was clearly getting picky now, in my pandemic-induced ennui. Nevertheless, it was ‘live’, with that frisson of ‘being there at the time’. The performances were wonderful and I raved about it.

I’ve watched many recorded monologues over the past year, including some specially commissioned for Popelei Theatre – Women in Lockdown for which they had more than 1000 entries – which were short and largely superb (even if they chose not to perform my own entry!) and more from the Old Vic’s 2018 One Hand Tied Behind Us archive. The ability to put just one person on the stage, or one person in their own sound-proofed home-office, and film them, makes this an attractive drama opportunity in such strange socially-distanced times. Perhaps it should go without saying, but it still comes down to the quality of the writing and the skill of the actor, and then if possible, the jeopardy of the ‘live’ performance. At least for me, anyway, this somehow adds so much if it is to be any sort of substitute for my old theatre trips.

Monologues weren’t the only answer. Some theatres were more able to reopen their doors successfully with social distancing than others and, although I watched this one at home via a live-link, the Chichester Festival Theatre managed to stage a production of Sarah Kane’s Crave with a small socially distanced audience. Its four performers were onstage together, but kept apart on parallel treadmills – a neat way of providing additional visual stimulation while they moved forward and backward alongside each other as they spoke. Don’t ask me what it was about though. In the space for applause, we just looked at each other in confusion, I unplugged the laptop and we watched yet another episode of Schitt’s Creek on Netflix. Told you I was shallow.

Before this latest lockdown, I was lucky enough to watch two more productions in actual theatres. Firstly, Educating Rita at my local Rose Theatre, Kingston at the start of November, and then A Christmas Carol in the all-too-brief reopening in early December at, you guessed it, my ever-favoured haunt the Bridge Theatre.

A Christmas Carol at Bridge Theatre

Both were hits in my book and critically well-received but, goodness! – there were two people acting together in the Willy Russell classic: so refreshing. With a proper old-fashioned (in a good way!) set and a decent-sized audience despite careful distancing. And three people – yes, three – in A Christmas Carol. Two actors (Patsy Ferran and Eben Figueiredo) each played several parts opposite Simon Russell Beale’s Scrooge. I hadn’t expected to enjoy that one so much – I thought it would be gimmicky – but it all worked beautifully and warmly.  It somehow felt like coming home. Except, of course, it had to stop. Again.

In each case, I was pretty sure that we were about to lose these opportunities again and I’m sure that made it all the sweeter (and sadder, I suppose).

Although I’ve highlighted just how much the ‘live’ element of theatre means to me – even when streamed to my TV – I explored some of the alternatives to get people back into theatre spaces when it was still impossible to have live performers on the stage. For example, there was the marvellous installation Blindness at the Donmar Warehouse, one of the first theatres to reopen its doors to limited groups of the public. For sure, the soundtrack of this dystopian tale (adapted by Simon Stephens from José Saramago’s novel) was recorded and visuals were restricted to lighting effects, graffiti and an open door, but the storytelling audio was a subtle and intimate Juliet Stevenson on binaural headphones, with such extraordinary sound production that, in the often-total darkness, the experience was fiercely personal. Several times, I was convinced she was right beside me – I froze (and feared for my handbag!). This was a weird event, especially as it used the progress of a pandemic as its narrative, made all the more strange by knowing that I was sitting in the pitch black in a space with other people, all of us masked and distanced. I also suspected I was sitting next to – at quite a distance from, of course – the great Simon Stephens himself. I know, I’m a fantasist – but who can tell who’s who in a mask? (I wrote about it at the time)

Also, the Bridge Theatre (yet again!) presented Flight, where audience members were given headphones and their own individual booth from which to watch a rotating wall of mini-diorama revealing the story of a pair of orphaned refugees as they attempt to cross Europe. The method of delivery drew me in, especially knowing that I was seeing everything just a tiny bit earlier than my husband in the next booth. Ha! Again, this seemed a very intimate experience – and there were more theatre corridors to explore! (More here)

Bridge Theatre – so enticing!

Although these offerings weren’t ‘live’ as such, they were delivered powerfully and directly in a space I knew I was sharing with others. That somehow mattered: maybe it would be less important in different times.

I’ve indulged in many podcasts and other streamed events from theatres – especial thanks to the Old Vic (Playcrush), Almeida and Royal Court for such varied and interesting fare.

I also think live-streaming has improved: the Almeida’s recent offering of Hymn by Lolita Chakrabarty was beautifully filmed and broadcast in the best viewing quality I have seen, and of course NT Live/NT At Home is always fantastic… but I still can’t imagine how a screen view can sufficiently substitute for a ring-side seat, if such a seat is on offer.

Yes, the old ‘greasepaint and crowd’ adage still holds good for me: I need the full stage/auditorium experience – the sounds and sights and smells envelope me, wake my dreams, hide the real world for a while. No phones, no laptop, no chat. And there’s something tangible, maybe romantic, about being in the same room with the actors. I just love to feel I’m sharing their experience as part of the crowd – with our intakes of breath, our laughter, applause, shuffling – if you’re lucky, moments of profound silence. Even at the back of the stalls or up in the gods, there’s a feeling of participation rather than just viewing.

At last, one year on, there are announcements of shows returning to the West End this summer, and I’m trying not to get too excited. What will I see first?I wonder whether some of the successful lockdown format experiments will be repeated? Increased live-streaming and broader sharing of recorded productions could bring in more revenue streams – I’m sure there will be an ongoing appetite for people who can rarely reach the theatre in person or live overseas and I will certainly boost my viewing this way, as long as it doesn’t cost too much I suppose. Also, installations like Flight and Blindness could boost attendance, – space, time and staff permitting.  

I’ve previously written about my love for live theatre, with reference to ‘emotion’ and ‘spit’! Now we have to be COVID-safe, perhaps we will need to rein in the spit for a while, but I wholeheartedly hope that by this time next year, we won’t need dreams or fairy tales (except in panto…Oh no we won’t!). We will instead be looking back from our perch on a stool in the theatre bar, toasting those who kept the faith and raised the curtain again.


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