In 1606, the bubonic plague spread through London. The Globe on Bankside was enjoying a crowd-pulling season with King Lear, Macbeth and Volpone all on the bill and doing sensational business. But it was obliged to close down. Shakespeare was among those who fled the city.
Last Wednesday, the matinee and evening performances of The Taming of the Shrew at the Sam Wanamaker at the Globe were cancelled because of the indisposition of a member of the cast. But the theatre felt it necessary to make this statement: “We apologise for any inconvenience and would like to reassure people that this is not related to Covid-19.”
The statement is a reflection of the understandable anxiety in theatre about what will happen over the coming days and weeks when, as seems almost inevitable, increasing numbers of coronavirus cases emerge as transmission within the community increases. Covid-19 is not the bubonic plague, but its potential impact on theatre shouldn’t be underestimated.
Obviously, theatres want to keep their staff, artists and audiences safe and will comply with whatever public health advice is laid out by the government. But what is more difficult to contain is the uncertainty and fear that the virus creates. Already Storyhouse in Chester has postponed two big new productions until the autumn, and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cinderella has been pushed back.
Even if theatres do stay open, the big question is: will audiences still come? London’s Chinatown restaurants have already seen a downturn in business as a result of entirely unjustified fear from diners that eating dim sum may put them at risk, and theatres may find themselves similarly affected, however much they try to allay fears. For many theatregoers it is not just about sitting in close proximity with hundreds of others, it is also about the journey to and from the theatre on public transport.
If increasing numbers are instructed to work at home, emptying out London and other large cities with major theatres, that will have a knock-on effect. Older people have already been advised to avoid crowds, so what happens to the matinee performances that rely heavily on the grey pound?
Of course, the coronavirus will have an impact on many different businesses. But if theatres are shut down, a great deal of work will need to be done once the threat from the virus has passed – to rebuild audience confidence and the habit of theatregoing. That will have an impact in many ways, including ticket prices. It will not just be back to business as usual once the worst is over.
The immediate effect of Covid-19 for freelance theatre workers – as for freelances in other industries – is a catastrophic loss of earnings. Many will be anxiously scanning contracts, as will managements. Many artists will also be affected by the loss of opportunities. As I write, London’s Vault Festival continues, but it is anyone’s guess whether thus year’s Edinburgh Fringe or other UK festivals will go ahead.
Richard Jordan has already written about the impact of the coronavirus on international touring, which is many companies’ bread and butter. The ramifications of this couldn’t come at a worse moment when the UK government, with a wilful disregard for the impact on the creative sector, has decided not to continue participating in Creative Europe post-Brexit.
Shakespeare’s fellow thespians toured out of London, far away from the plague’s more deadly ravages. But that is not an option for theatremakers in the interconnected world of Covid-19. But of course, there are other methods of distributing art – including live streaming – that might offer different ways of getting theatre out there while venues are closed. It might help open the eyes of theatres and companies to the possibilities of digital in a way they haven’t previously explored. How might artists help if schools are closed and learning moves online?
A shutdown may make it impossible to stage work, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be made – although I appreciate worrying about how to feed your family may make that very hard. But I have heard of companies that are thinking outside the box: if the worst comes to the worst, they may not be able to take a show on tour but could, if everyone agrees, be paid to make a new show together.
There are many practicalities that would need to be sorted out, but I’m certain that theatre will survive whatever happens. Theatre has survived the plague, the closure brought about by the Long Parliament, the uncertainties following both 9/11 and the 2008 financial crash and also several heightened alerts around terrorism.
The closure of theatres in 1606 eventually ushered in a new era with the creation of the indoor playhouse. It is possible the Covid-19 virus may play a similar role in shaping the theatre of the future.
Lyn Gardner is associate editor of The Stage. Read her latest column every Monday at: thestage.co.uk/columns/gardner