With Step 4 of Covid-easing, Britain’s cultural sector has started reopening, albeit in the same derangement of abject confusion as everyone else. Behind the scenes, cast members are being pinged, becoming unavailable at next to no notice, putting entire productions at risk if the understudies are also locked down.
You cannot run a much loved show with characters missing. You cannot run a show at break even or profit if each part and backstage support requires cover. Let alone if venues cannot be filled to capacity. Or, even if they could be, the audiences are similarly unwilling to risk buying a ticket they may not be able to use.
Rehearsals have become exercises in planning that would gladden the heart of a Soviet-era bureaucrat, particularly for young performers. Masked infants in black shirts are being corralled into venues. That is if they can get licensed, can prove a negative test each day, and haven’t been pinged, subject to school approval, while their chaperones are similarly constrained. Adult performers, having spent a year driving vans and delivering Amazon parcels, now risk their tenuous careers if they restore their social lives and go to a pub. This is not sustainable.
The experience of seeing a show this week was conversely extraordinary and positive. There is deep emotion from performers that make it to the stage, released like inmates from the Bastille, giving it their all for one fine day. Mask mandates and vaccine passports are stated as required for entry but they are not being enforced and are being widely ignored. The prison doors are being blown off by revolutionaries waving their tickets. The tribes of theatreland are emerging in the West End like Von Trapps fleeing the Anschluss. And so far, the Rolfs of local authority enforcement are not blowing the whistle. This needs to continue. Despite the Rolfs.
Nationally, in replacing laws with guidance, and guidance with incoherent hysteria, the Government has created a situation in which hosting a performance is a performance. The plays are now plays within plays, presenting an illusion of miserable security to one set of audiences and the escape of joyful insecurity to another. The additive risks of all this chicanery to life and limb are trivial; unvaccinated youth are more likely to be killed by transport going to the theatre than from Covid sitting in it. The actual harm of these authoritarian shadow terrors are to the livelihoods of the talent and all those who make the magic happen.
‘Who Breaks a Butterfly on Wheel?’ asked the Times on the jailing of Jagger and Richards for drug possession in 1967. Commenting on the absurdity of the over-reaction. What government gases the whole butterfly farm? We might say today. What use is there in letting this ghastly run of Pandemic Puppet Theatre supervised by the People’s Proper Performance Committee continue when the show is over? The only people who care aren’t coming out anyway, and most will only do so when they see sufficient others taking risks without severe consequences. The show needs a new script. That’s the only path to a happy ending.