Covid marshals have invaded theatreland. Arriving for a weekday matinee at the Bridge, I was greeted by stewards holding up illuminated boards. ‘PLEASE WEAR A FACE COVERING.’ Inside, the seating had been rearranged into clumps of twos and threes with the odd single perch sticking out like a toadstool. Nicholas Hytner offered us a pair of the best-loved scripts by his favourite living playwright, Alan Bennett.
The afternoon was stuffy and I took sips from a bottle of water in accordance with signage which suggested that masks might be removed for the purposes of drinking. After each glug I diligently replaced my covering. Ten minutes into the show, I was visited by a Covid marshal who informed me that the position of my mouth-wear dissatisfied him. ‘Can you put your mask over your nose? I keep seeing you taking it off.’ I did so. He crept back into the shadows to continue spying on me. How bizarre. A stalker hired by the theatre was policing my every move. This level of dictatorial intrusiveness will kill the theatre. An audience can’t possibly attend to a drama while the aisles are being patrolled by Stalinist busybodies licensed to select victims at random and force them to make minute adjustments to their apparel. The theatre is about showing us our better selves. If it turns into a grudge match between art-lovers and philistines it will die.
The performances were excellent but the atmosphere was muted and uneasy. In The Shrine, Monica Dolan played a widow whose motorcycling husband has collided with an oak tree. She visits the crash site to kneel and pray, wearing a high-viz jacket to prevent another mishap, but a bothersome safety inspector terminates her devotions. ‘You’re an accident waiting to happen.’ Clearly Hytner hoped this script would amuse us with its topical themes but our present woes make it ten times more depressing than Bennett can ever have intended.
Next, Lesley Manville delivered a heart-breakingly funny performance of Bed Among the Lentils. Even Bennett sceptics will find it hard not to admire this exquisitely crafted portrait of a vicar’s wife who rails against her captivity in a dead-end parish. Sadly the audience in the half-empty house responded with far less merriment than the performances deserved. Actors who can’t hear peals of laughter will look out for the next best thing — smiling and grinning. The sight of parted lips and white teeth heartens a comedy performer no end. But this too has gone. Another victory for masks over art.
The bossiness of the Bridge was equalled by the regime at the Royal Docks Learning & Activity Centre. The venue required us to soap our hands with gin-scented muck on arrival and to occupy socially distanced benches. Masks were compulsory even though the playing area was outdoors. The show, 846 Live, was a medley of speeches and sketches inspired by the BLM movement. As we waited for curtain-up, a recorded voice howled extra rules in our ears. ‘Stay seated during the performance. Do not move from your benches.’
First came a playlet featuring an American policewoman who sought permission to murder an innocent pedestrian. ‘I’m armed and ready to engage, sir … the threat level is pretty severe. He’s sitting there, sir, breathing, staring.’ Did this come from a genuine police transcript or was it a piece of fiction? That uncertainty weakened its impact. Next, a dialogue about a black Yorkshireman who wanted his white father-in-law to understand oppression. When the father-in-law offered his point of view, the black guy retorted: ‘Suck my mum!’ Instead of feeling apologetic, he was thrilled and elated by his sudden outburst. This interesting piece was too short and merited development. Third, a revolutionary speech from a BLM agitator. ‘I was there, blood or bone, fist or bottle. The uprising is coming, ready or not.’ Fine but smashing things up is unlikely to lead us to a happier society.
Finally, a monologue about an overlooked scandal. ‘BAME people die disproportionately as a result of force by the British police,’ said the speaker. The phrase ‘as a result of force’ was carefully chosen to cover a vast range of cases. A mentally ill man restrained and killed in a police station is very different from a career gangster shot dead by jumpy armed cops on the streets. But both were included in the catalogue of slaughter in order to substantiate the view that the police operate as racist murder squads. Leftie activists love to promote this falsehood. The speaker revealed that 1,740 ethnic minority citizens have died at the hands of the authorities in the past 50 years. She added that criminal proceedings have yet to be brought against any of those responsible. This back catalogue needs to be examined afresh but the investigation will be strengthened by the removal of cases in which the police acted justly.