‘Times are a-changing’: post-pandemic theatre

By Daisy Hargreaves

Much like you, dear reader, I am unfortunate enough to have an interest in the arts. The past 18 months have damned the supposedly ‘expendable’ creative industry with as much devastating force as when that guy on Come Dine With Me exposed Jane’s sad little life. However, now the arts are slowly returning, there is an interesting question to ponder as the house lights go down and you carefully balance your plastic pint glass of overpriced cider and share bag of Malteasers — that you certainly do not plan on sharing — on your lap: What has changed?

Are people more excited for the theatre? Certainly! Walking back into the theatre after so long is like going to brunch with an old school friend. You dress up, showing you’ve changed, matured. It starts off a little awkward. You want them to know how well you’re doing and then you hear how they’ve been travelling and have a new partner. You get a little jealous, but it all melts away into genuine excitement. You love them, they love you. You reminisce about old times and promise to not leave it this long until you meet up again and you genuinely mean it, you are left with a warm glowing smile on the tube on your way home.

It’s not like we haven’t heard from our old school friends recently, we’ve just been viewing their life updates through their Instagram stories and stalking them on SnapMaps (the old friend is a metaphor for theatre, get it? Okay, let’s move on). Despite the Tory campaign that told creatives to all retrain in ‘cyber’ being horrid and nasty, the irony is that we actually did have to learn some ‘cyber’ (still don’t really know what that means). I was a part of Durham’s first filmed theatrical production, Blackbird, with Suffragette Theatre Company. It was a terrifying and stressful process, figuring out how to film and also perform an ‘intimate’ scene in keeping with social distancing rules. But we did it, it worked, and at least a handful of people actually watched it. It was the same when it came to producing content for the Durham Revue. We realised that we couldn’t record a show in an empty theatre without laughs — it would have sent us all into an even deeper self-hate spiral. Online sketches were the way forward, but you quickly realise that online content is a whole other ball game. A rather lonely, technically challenging ball game.

It is also key to point out that filming theatre is not a new idea. NT Live has been beaming past productions onto the silver screen for years, starting way back in 2009 with Helen Mirren in Phedre, which amassed an audience of approximately 50,000 for one performance. One of the best productions I have ever seen was an NT Live streaming of Ivan van Hove’s A View from the Bridge. The medium did not lessen the impact of the performance (although I kind of wish I’d seen it live if only to be splashed with fake blood by Mark Strong — swoon).

A wonderful hybrid of the two mediums.

Of course we have also seen a wonderful hybrid of the two mediums in the recent National Theatre film of Romeo & Juliet. Filmed at the height of lockdown, the film plays tribute to the haunted theatres that lay empty and dark up and down the country. The featurettes on the production (available on YouTube — great procrastination content) all discuss the peculiar privilege of performing on the Lyttleton stage when the rest of the building remained silent. Despite the lack of audience, the film still captures the essence of theatre — its biggest success, in my opinion. The star-studded cast is seen in rehearsal gear, tracksuit bottoms and trainers, warming up, scripts in hand. You could practically sense the meal deals in the corner and sniff that specific dusty smell of the wings through the screen. The end-product was a film that encapsulated the experience of both mediums, reaping the benefits of both with masterful skill.

You quickly realise online content is a whole other ball-game.

This blended approach has been explored before. Katie Mitchell utilises the projection of images and videos in her award-winning productions, using fragmentation to add a filmic dimension to her conception of theatre. In a similar way, Joe Wright’s 2012 film of Anna Karenina, starring Keira Knightley, is set within a theatre, exploiting the architecture and physical structure of the space to amplify the themes of the famous narrative.

What I’m trying to say is: don’t be sceptical about this blend of film and theatre (the ultimate creative smoothie). We’ve seen it before, whether you realised it or not. It is what we could manage during the lockdown, it won’t be going anywhere soon, and I don’t think theatre will die because of it; people still crave real people in real places and telling other people to ‘shh’. So, text that old friend. I’m sure they’d love to meet up. Just don’t be shocked if they look a little different because deep down they’re still the same.

Image credit: Kushagra Kevat (Unsplash); Wesley Pribadi (Unsplash)

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