Curtain up: the great theatrical reopening

A lone fly dances in a shaft of sunlight above the stage at Shakespeare’s Globe. For the moment, he has the place to himself. But in a few weeks’ time all that should change. On May 19, for the first time since the pandemic struck, this world-famous theatre on London’s South Bank hopes to open its doors to audiences.

That stage-struck fly will be joined by Moth and the other fairies from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, kicking off a summer season of live drama. And the eerie stillness that currently hangs over this beautiful replica Elizabethan playhouse will be broken by the sound of audience members.

It marks the comeback of a legendary cultural venue — unlike some outdoor spaces, the Globe was unable to open last summer — at the end of a devastating year for theatre. Across the world, the performing arts have suffered a drastic loss of income, with widespread redundancies, swingeing cuts in budgets and some shows, such as Frozen on Broadway, closing permanently. A recent UK industry survey found that a quarter of freelancers have gone out of business; a similar report in New York saw arts, entertainment and recreation employment down by two thirds.

“It’s still a risk,” says Michelle Terry, artistic director of the Globe, of reopening. “But now it feels like it’s a risk worth taking in a way that it just didn’t feel last July.”

The Globe’s yard has been scrubbed clean . . .
The Globe theatre stage
. . . ready for a return to live performance on May 19 © Timi Akindele-Ajani

It’s a little way yet to all the world being a stage. There has been cheering news from Australia, where big-hitters Hamilton and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child have recently opened and Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre is staging a large-scale immersive show. Madrid, Moscow, St Petersburg and Jerusalem are among the cities where you can watch live theatre. But in France, theatre workers have been occupying dozens of venues in protest at closures and benefit changes.

In New York, theatres have been allowed to reopen with a maximum 150 people indoors (they must have negative Covid-19 tests), and the city has launched NY PopsUp, an invigorating festival of pop-up performances. The Public Theater plans a return to Shakespeare in the Park in July, with a buzzy Merry Wives set in South Harlem. Blindness, the immersive audio-drama pioneered by London’s Donmar Warehouse last summer, is now transferring around the globe and recently opened at New York’s Daryl Roth Theatre. It has dates planned in Toronto, Hong Kong, Auckland and at Washington’s Shakespeare Theatre Company.

But, as countries respond to a rapidly changing situation, for many in theatreland, to open or not to open remains the question. Simon Godwin, artistic director of STC, says they are hoping to come back with full-capacity seated audiences in the autumn. “I believe that’s also Broadway’s aim. What is clear is that when we do come back, we will be coming back in a more modest way. I think the healing of American theatre is going to be a long-term project.”

A socially distanced audience at a performance of ‘Blindness’ at the Daryl Roth Theatre, New York
A socially distanced audience at a performance of ‘Blindness’ at the Daryl Roth Theatre, New York, this month © New York Times / Redux / Eyevine

In the UK, the Globe joins a growing host of English theatres intending to return this summer, galvanised by the country’s successful vaccine rollout and the government’s plan for a staggered reopening of public life. This would theoretically allow for reduced capacity audiences no earlier than May 17 and full capacity no earlier than June 21. The Globe hopes to mount three productions — Twelfth Night and Romeo and Juliet join the Dream — starting with 470 people in the house and gradually building up to nearer the normal 1,570 by the autumn. “It’s an incremental easing ourselves out of isolation,” says Terry.

As an unsubsidised venue, the Globe lost 95 per cent of its income overnight when it shut last year. The government job retention scheme and Culture Recovery Fund have been key to its survival, says Neil Constable, the theatre’s chief executive. Even so, things are tight. “We now understand why we build reserves,” he says, wryly.

Sitting in the space on a bright spring day, I’m struck by the quiet. This is a place usually thronged with crowds, with an animated audience jostling round the stage. Left to its own devices, it started to go back to nature, says Constable — a green fuzz even crept across the yard. But now the players are making their entrance. The yard has been scrubbed clean; technicians are moving props. There’s a feeling of industry and expectation.

Fresh air comes for free at the Globe; other safety precautions have taken more work. There will be regular cast testing, e-tickets, face masks, staggered audience arrival times, separate entrances for different seating areas, enhanced cleaning and an earlier start time to encourage visitors from outside London. That key feature of the Globe, the raucous standing crowd, will (initially) be replaced with spaced-out seating in the yard. “I wanted deck chairs, but nobody went with it,” says Terry, ruefully.

The yard of Shakespeare’s Globe
The yard of Shakespeare’s Globe, green with algae before being cleaned up for reopening

Meanwhile backstage, props, costumes and wigs need to be separated, and keeping cast members safe is a military operation worthy of Henry V. Shakespeare was not a man for a two-hander.

But in other respects, the theatre is fortunate in its house playwright, argues Terry. “We know that Shakespeare was the plague playwright,” she says. “The plays have social distance built into them: there are very few moments where the characters actually make contact. And he didn’t write intervals into the plays. He repeats anything you need enough times that you’re not going to miss anything.”

No intervals for a while, then: the audience will be free to visit the bar or bathrooms at any point during the performance. The Globe was created to give modern audiences a taste of watching the plays in Shakespeare’s time. Strangely, the present pandemic could play into that mission in more ways than one. The playwright’s own experience of the plague coloured the work itself, says Terry: our recent trauma could bring us closer to those dramas.

the Globe
With its thatched roof, the Globe is a replica of theatres from Shakespeare’s time . . .
the Globe
. . . with an open-air yard overlooked by spectator galleries © Timi Akindele-Ajani

“The reason that letter doesn’t get through to Romeo in Mantua is because of the plague,” she says. “It is going to be a really rare moment where the audience is living in almost the same context as the Elizabethan audience. How we hear these plays will be different. Theatre is about dialogue between that play and that audience on a particular night. We’re about to enter into that in the most potent and powerful way. I think it’s going to be such a cathartic time.”

Like all theatre practitioners, however, Terry has a nervous eye on scientific data, new variants and anything else that could delay openings. There have been false dawns before and those dates in the government plan will be confirmed only a week in advance.

“There’s a little wriggle room around worst-case scenarios,” she says. “But not a lot. We turn over about £25m a year in a normal year; we’re anticipating £12m this year. And the big thing for us is that we have to find a way to stay open. What we couldn’t sustain is this stop-start-stop-start situation.”

As director of the UK’s flagship National Theatre, Rufus Norris has already been round the rollercoaster twice. The National opened last November with Death of England: Delroy, only to close on opening night, and ran into another lockdown with its planned Christmas show, Dick Whittington.

It was bruising, says Norris, but the team learnt “how to welcome an audience in a safe way”. They also discovered just how keen audiences are to return. “They were hugely appreciative,” he says.

Socially distanced seating at the National Theatre, London
Socially distanced seating at the National Theatre, London © Cameron Slater Photography

That appreciation, in part, drives Norris’s hope to return. The National was quick to respond to the first lockdown, streaming many of its filmed NTLive productions, free, to a global audience. It’s just released a film of Romeo & Juliet, shot in the backstage spaces, and plans to do more. Now Norris feels the theatre needs to be “front and central” in getting things moving again, creating work for a hard-pressed freelance workforce and entertainment for theatre-starved audiences.

“There’s lots of reasons not to do stuff at the moment,” Norris says. “All the uncertainty. But our responsibility is to our audience and our artists.”

In June, the National plans two productions. Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood (from June 16), starring Michael Sheen, will run in the large Olivier theatre, configured in-the-round to combine socially distanced seating with a collective experience. The smaller Dorfman auditorium will host a version of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s 1998 film After Life (from June 2), adapted by Jack Thorne. The emphasis, after a year of trauma, is on warmth, community and reflection.

After Life takes place in an institute for the recently deceased where they are invited to try and identify the memory in which they would like to spend eternity,” says Norris. “It felt an extraordinarily prescient and reflective piece. Under Milk Wood is obviously a much beloved classic and it’s a celebration of community, of life and death. It’s a very warm and embracing way of inviting an audience back into the theatre.”

Beyond the summer, the theatre is travelling hopefully, but with care. Norris has talked about a “period of distillation” and has two potential programmes and two budgets running: one that embraces a return to full audience capacity and one that doesn’t. Like Godwin, he envisages an initial period of modest means but large ideas: the focus will be on people, on plays with “heart and depth”, rather than lavish sets.

“I think shows will be distilled in terms of the amount of resource,” Norris says. “But I hope that it means there is a more in-depth dig into what the artists are trying to do . . . I think more than anything audiences will want that human connection that they’ve been missing.”

With so much hope waiting in the wings, how best to achieve full opening and avoid costly closures because of flare-ups or lockdowns? In Berlin, venues have experimented with mass on-the-day testing of audiences; in the UK, the government’s Events Research Programme has set up pilot schemes examining safe routes to full capacity. Allied to that is the debate about introducing “Covid passports” (certification of vaccination, natural immunity or negative testing), a move that could embrace theatres. Many practitioners have reservations about the impact on inclusivity.

An event in February at Utrecht’s Beatrix Theatre trialling options for restarting performances safely
An event in February at Utrecht’s Beatrix Theatre trialling options for restarting performances safely © Reuters
Covid-19 precautions at the box office of the Lincoln Theatre, Miami Beach in December
Covid-19 precautions at the box office of the Lincoln Theatre, Miami Beach in December © Getty Images

“We wouldn’t encourage it,” says West End producer Kenny Wax. “We don’t want theatres to become a sort of alarm-bell venue. But if we had to do it, we would.”

If there were a medal for persistence in the face of lockdowns, Wax would surely be in the running. His hit musical Six was three hours from its Broadway opening night when New York shut down last March; the West End production closed a few days later. A drive-in tour planned for last summer hit the ropes in the face of local shutdowns; a West End comeback in December lasted a week. The show had a run in Sydney but paused an Australian tour because shows cannot travel between states and a world tour slated to start in Manila next year has been put back 12 months.

Undeterred, Wax plans to reopen in the West End in May, mount a UK tour in June and resume on Broadway the minute he is allowed. “We do hope to be the first new show to reopen,” he says.

But exactly when Broadway and the West End will be back at full throttle remains uncertain. For many of the biggest commercial shows, opening with reduced capacity is financially unviable. The hope is for late summer or autumn.

The cast of West End musical ‘Everybody’s Talking About Jamie’ rehearsing at London’s Apollo Theatre last year
The cast of West End musical ‘Everybody’s Talking About Jamie’ rehearsing at London’s Apollo Theatre last year © Camera Press

“We can only do it once,” says leading theatre producer Sonia Friedman, whose shows include Harry Potter, Leopoldstadt, The Book of Mormon and The Inheritance. She closed 19 worldwide productions when the pandemic struck and paused 10 in development.

“It’s going to cost my company over £7m to reopen those shows in the West End,” says Friedman. “That’s not even talking about the foreign productions or the new work and before the running costs. We can only, as a sector, have one moment where we commit all that money, commit all that effort, commit all that time.”

She sees certificates and testing as likely, but also “a complex ethical and privacy issue”. “It is vital we are part of the creation of these protocols to ensure they are as fair, simple and unobtrusive as possible for our audiences,” she says.

When I talk to Friedman, however, she is in a West End theatre. While Harry Potter waits to re-enter, she’s cooking up something new: RE:EMERGE, a programme of vibrant, small-scale “new plays for a new world”, to open at the Harold Pinter Theatre in May. Arts Council funding will enable them to run with socially distanced audiences.

“I couldn’t just sit on the sidelines and wait it out,” says Friedman. “I wanted to stage new work because I wanted to reinvigorate our theatres, but our creative workforce as well. And the season is about re-emerging — slowly, carefully, gently — in order to build back up to bigger productions.”

Exit, stage left: attendees leave after an NY PopsUp event
Exit, stage left: attendees leave after an NY PopsUp event © Getty Images

Though small-scale, the plays are big in reach, she adds. Walden, by Amy Berryman, focuses on the environment; Anna X, by Joseph Charlton, considers fake news, misinformation, trust, and social media. Yasmin Joseph’s J’Ouvert (which will be broadcast on BBC4) is set at the 2017 Notting Hill Carnival, just months after the Grenfell Tower tragedy.

J’Ouvert is about young black womanhood,” says Friedman. “It’s powerful, physical, incredibly moving and very important . . . They’re all fantastically accessible — as well as being right at the centre of what matters right now, what the discussions are and what the world is thinking about.”

Which raises the question — what will we see on our stages when this is over? What will change? Many practitioners think that innovations such as live streaming are here to stay and that theatre will flex to respond to our recent experiences.

“I want an angry play, a light comedy, a big old-fashioned musical and I want work that talks about what the fuck we’ve just been through,” says Friedman. “I want pieces that reflect the beauty of our world. Without wanting to overstate it, I think theatre has a part to play in the mental health recovery of our country, not just the economic recovery.”

Roxana Silbert, artistic director of London’s Hampstead Theatre, which specialises in new work, has found the audience appetite for live theatre “incredibly moving”. Of the two shows she’s about to open — Alfred Fagon’s The Death of a Black Man and Deborah Bruce’s Raya — the latter has already sold out. She has also seen a sea-change in the new plays coming in.

The show must go on

Shakespeare’s Globe, London, from May 19

National Theatre, London, from June 2

Public Theater, New York,

Shakespeare Theatre, Washington DC,

Hampstead Theatre, London, from May 28

Six the Musical, London, from May 21 (UK and world tour dates to be announced)

“There’s a sort of new political theatre, which is not like it was,” says Silbert. “It feels like theatre had moved away from ‘state-of-the-nation’ plays in the last 10 years. I now have on my desk several ‘state-of-the-nation’ plays. People have had a year to reflect on what we want our world to look like and that is the work that is coming through . . . I think new work offers us the best opportunity to process what we’ve been through and explore what we might be.”

When plague closed the theatres in Shakespeare’s time, the playwright is said to have written his towering tragedy King Lear. Shakespeare’s Globe will produce that play next year. But what of today? Are contemporary playwrights crafting their own versions of King Lear?

Sonia Friedman thinks so. “I’ve had two new plays which are pretty extraordinary responses to the times we’re living in,” she says. “I think [the West End] will change. I feel change is in the wind. I absolutely know two years from now it’s going to feel like a very different place to be and work in. But I think it’s going to be fantastic.”

Sarah Hemming is the FT’s theatre critic

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