Robert Jackman

The problem with masks in theatres

The problem with masks in theatres
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As if our beleaguered prime minister didn't have enough to worry about, now comes another unhelpful headline. For on a mid-week trip to Islington's most fashionable theatre, the Almeida, Boris Johnson had the misfortune to be spotted – well, snapped – by another audience member after he had temporarily removed his face-mask.

For the tutting Zero Covid fanatics of Twitter, this latest mask blunder is – of course – yet further evidence of the PM's reckless disregard for lives and safety. For anyone who’s stepped foot in a theatre, though, Johnson’s choice will be viewed much more sympathetically. For if there’s a more irritating place on earth to wear a mask than the theatre, I’ve yet to find it.

Watching a play isn't popping to the shops or jumping on the tube. It's a long commitment – three hours in the case of this particular play (The Tragedy of Macbeth). That's quite a while to tolerate something potentially obstructing your breathing. And let’s not forget that – unlike a long train journey – everyone going to the theatre does so entirely by choice. If they were that terrified of Covid, they’d have given it a miss.

And how relevant are masks to theatre performances anyway? The one thing you are forbidden from doing during a performance is talking. Assuming the audience behaves, that puts a pretty solid dent in the argument that you need masks to prevent aerosol droplets.

In the prime minister’s defence, the vast majority of theatres – the Almeida included – dropped their mask mandates months ago. Instead, they tend to make a perfectly reasonable request that audience members ‘consider’ wearing one. Just like every other establishment that doesn’t cater specifically to the medically vulnerable.

Does it work? Based on my recent visits, I'd say that around 40 per cent of audience members mask up. But a decent chunk take them off when the lights go down. Even those who prefer to play it safe seem perfectly relaxed about it. Once again, the member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip finds himself in tune with public opinion.

Perhaps that’s no surprise. For all his weird elbow-bumping piety in public, I suspect Boris soon worked out what us theatre regulars have known for a while: that having to wear a mask puts a serious dampener on a good night out. Even today, I bristle at recalling some of my visits to theatreland last autumn – back when mask rules were enforced to the point that even a momentary lapse could attract a visit from a hissing usher.

I remember one particularly ludicrous incident when, having purchased a double gin and tonic (from the theatre’s own bar), I was told that – if I wanted to drink it during the performance – I should do so ‘as quickly as possible’, so as to minimise the time spent unmasked. Even in a year of perverse health and safety rules, that was a new one: ‘You’d better down that liquor quickly. For your own good!'

There were other silly impositions, too. Irritating one-way systems. No access to the toilets after the show. Having to show up 30 minutes early (in the case of the National) to be checked-in airline style and escorted to your seat. But it was the ubiquitous mask regime that succeeded in squeezing the joy from the whole experience.

So let’s not condemn Boris for choosing to exercise his right to go maskless at the Almeida – a choice probably echoed by half of those in the stalls. The arts are supposed to be about free expression – or, for most punters, a bit of escapism – and an antidote to puritanism. Given their propensity for staying indoors, we can probably safely assume the Zero Covid lot don't venture to the theatre that often. But must they impose their social codes on those that do?

Let’s focus instead on those far more serious rumours – posted online by those claiming to have been there – that the prime minister committed the grievous sin of nattering throughout the performance. For, as any theatre lover will tell you, this is the far graver crime.