(Photo by Ollie Millington/Getty Images)

Can theatres survive the crisis? And should they?

How can theatres come out of this, asks Alexander Larman

Artillery Row

With theatres all over the country deprived of their audiences, and therefore any chance of revenue, it is no surprise that their financial fortunes have plummeted dramatically. The much-loved Nuffield Southampton Theatres group, one of the best institutions of its kind and the Stage’s 2015 regional theatre of the year, went into administration a couple of weeks ago, citing a mixture of lack of cash flow and continued uncertainty about any reopening date. Although the administrators are optimistic that the building will be sold and will continue to function as a theatre, its current schedule has been cancelled, its staff will lose their jobs and the future does not look good.

The industry is rapidly approaching a hideous dilemma, which affects it considerably worse than other, less intimate art forms

There will, unfortunately, be many more such cases over the coming months. Even as the government have stated that ‘All of us who care about the arts are very concerned for the future of theatres and museums and galleries, the performing arts, and all of those who work in this sector’ on the grounds that it is ‘one of our great international strengths and something that is important for our well-being as well as our country’, the outlook is a bleak one. The main reason for this is that social distancing makes it impossible for theatres to reopen and function in any normal fashion, let alone a profitable one.

Leaving aside the fact that it would be hugely daunting for any actor to try and elicit laughs in a comedy from a barely quarter-full audience, there is no chance of any theatre covering its running costs without playing to capacity. The industry is rapidly approaching a hideous dilemma, which affects it considerably worse than other, less intimate art forms. If theatres do not reopen before long, the vast majority of them will be unable to do so. If they do return, however, cautious audiences may stay away, leaving high-profile and much-anticipated productions high and dry. Many theatres are resigning themselves to not opening at all this year, and hoping that they can pick up again in 2021.

Unfortunately, this could be catastrophic in many cases. Rufus Norris, the artistic director of the National Theatre, said in April that ‘Unless there is a real and concerted drive to uphold the cultural industries in this country, it will be devastating’, and warned, presciently, that ‘I know several theatres that have days, not weeks.’ Norris, who has himself suffered coronavirus, is in the relatively fortunate position of being in charge of a theatre that enjoys considerable state subsidy, but he warned grimly that, once the reserves were exhausted, the only options were substantial government funding to continue the National’s survival, or insolvency.

Matthew Warchus, the Old Vic’s artistic director, was even blunter in a recent interview with the Guardian. Describing his theatre as an institution ‘with significant cultural presence, but, unusually, no government funding’, he has furloughed 80% of the theatre’s staff and asked those remaining to take a 20% pay cut. He suggests that the Old Vic will be through its reserve funds ‘in a small matter of months’, and after that, there is no safety net. As he has said, ‘We are all puzzling away, thinking hard about how we can respond to this situation and what our creative input can be. There are some bright people on those calls. We are mostly stumped because our hands are tied behind our backs: if you can’t bring performers and creatives together, with an audience, you’re incredibly limited.’

There have been various schemes and stratagems adopted by theatres to keep going, in people’s lives as much as financially. I have written before about the upsides and downsides of the National Theatre Live on TV initiative, and having seen several of them, my instincts are that large-scale comedy and Shakespearean productions do best, whereas intense drama suffers when removed from the atmosphere of the auditorium. It could, presumably, be possible to stage some socially distanced theatre that can be screened ‘as live’ from theatres to a paying audience at home. As one wag remarked, ‘get ready for a lot of Waiting for Godot’.

Yet theatres are also all too aware of the Arts Council’s criteria for funding, which has recently shifted from ‘excellence’ to ‘relevance’. Therefore, although the Old Vic does not receive money from government sources, Warchus has launched a scheme aimed primarily at children called Your Old Vic, one of the aims of which will be to connect them with older people. He has also commissioned a monologue from the Booker Prize-winning novelist Bernardine Evaristo about the NHS, as part of a larger celebration of the institution planned for next year, should the theatre survive that long. One wonders if Evaristo’s monologue will be at all critical of the drawbacks of the health service, and, if not, whether Warchus will commission another, more sceptical companion piece from the likes of Lionel Shriver or Douglas Murray. One rather imagines not.

Although most major theatres have continued to plan for next year, and beyond, they are all too aware of the John Lennon dictum that ‘life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans’. The likes of Norris and Warchus are forthright about the need for considerable government subsidy of the industry, citing both its artistic value to communities, and, with an eye on the balance sheet, its impact on tourism. More people attend the theatre than Premier League football annually (although of course the number who watch matches on television dwarves those who see drama in any medium), and for the sector simply to be wiped out would be catastrophic for the country, both now and forever.

However, what happens next is far from certain. If you’re Kwame Kwei-Armah, artistic director of the Young Vic, the solution is relatively simple: a substantial government bailout after the end of the furlough period, and then an active attempt to rebuild a new audience in a progressive fashion, concentrating on issues of class, race and gender. In other words, the left-wing bias of contemporary British theatre should be accelerated and strengthened, and those institutions that survive should be free to concentrate on producing new work that offers its own artistic opposition to the government that has ensured its survival. As incentives to offer vast amounts of taxpayers’ cash to artistic directors go, this is not one of the most enticing.

What might be desirable, both from an artistic and economic perspective, would be for an engaged government arts minister to offer theatres a deal

Therefore, if we look at the worst-case scenario and the disappearance of the entire subsidised sector, what is likely to happen after that? A certain sort of theatregoer is likely to shrug and express ‘Good riddance’ to the likes of the National, Royal Court and Young Vic. The more nuanced conservative thinker might suggest that this would be a terrible outcome, firstly in terms of the vast number of redundancies that it would engender, and secondly because British theatre would be poorer if it was only to operate as a purely commercial entity. There is a lot of dreadful new writing, driven solely by a desperate desire to worship at the altar of diversity, but there are also some brilliant playwrights emerging. The millions who enjoyed Quiz on television recently would not have seen it if James Graham, its superb young writer, had not begun his career at the highly-thought-of Finborough Theatre in Earl’s Court, an institution that is now, like many, desperately asking for donations in order to survive.

Instead, what might be desirable, both from an artistic and economic perspective, would be for an engaged government arts minister to offer theatres a deal. In exchange for a bailout and for continued financial support, they have to be prepared to offer a true diversity of theatre. Thus, for every play that deals exclusively with issues revolving around street gangs in Hackney, there could be another one that is preoccupied with upper-middle-class adultery in Hampstead. A quota system could be put in place to make sure that every class and ethnicity gets their fair share of drama specifically aimed at them. Or, alternatively, artistic directors could look away from theatre specifically (and exhaustingly) concerned with one sector of their potential audience, and attempt to concentrate on plays that people might actually consider it essential to go and see, coronavirus or no coronavirus.

The first major play that is going to be staged next year is a revival of Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem with its original star Mark Rylance, which is as close to a guaranteed hit as contemporary theatre has. Yet one wonders if producers and artistic directors need to be similarly aggressive in coming up with other sure-fire successes as well, even if this seems like pandering to an audience. There is a rich canon of British and international drama that has been comparatively neglected in recent years, especially by the subsidised sector, and it would be no bad thing to concentrate on that for 2021’s programming.

Critics might sneer that we don’t need yet another production of Hamlet, Importance of Being Earnest or Arcadia, and they may well be right. But at a time when an economic downturn is inevitable and where theatregoing will not be top of many people’s list of priorities, a compromise is necessary. Offering the dramatic equivalent of comfort food does not mean that audiences should expect an unvaried diet of middlebrow Thirties drama and trouser-dropping farce. One looks at the great successes of the Nicholas Hytner era at the National – The History Boys, War Horse and One Man, Two Guvnors – and their long and lucrative tours afterwards, and then understands what people actually want to pay money to go and see, rather than what an artistic director or the Arts Council believe that they should.

The saddest result of the current situation, from this perspective, is that many theatres undoubtedly will close down, and some of them will never reopen in their intended forms. One fears there will be a surge in executive flats in buildings called ‘The Old Playhouse’ and similar for quite some time. The government will not be in a position to bail out every theatre, no matter how deserving their individual situation, and there will undoubtedly be a significant gap between the end of the furlough scheme and playhouses reopening. Yet those that survive will be emerging into a changed world, where old certainties will no longer apply. Those that can deal with the new situation – economic and artistic alike – will thrive, and those that cannot will find that their salvation this time round will have been nothing more than temporary life support. For the sake of the industry and our enjoyment alike, I hope that many more can be in the first category, and that the theatre can emerge, phoenix-like, from the current crisis.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover