It might seem counterintuitive to say this about such a chatty medium, but what I have missed most about the theatre during its long year in the Covid wilderness is silence. More specifically, the two distinct types of silence unique to this artform, the silences that top and tail a production of import, a piece that matters. The first is the silence of anticipation, as an excited first night audience settles into its seats and stops fidgeting and the lights sink down. The second sort, even better, is the kind that floats and shimmers around the auditorium once the final word has been spoken and the lights come up, before rapturous applause bursts forth from every excited spectator, buzzing with the sensation of having just shared in something special. Silence in the midst of words, individuality in the midst of community: that is what the theatre means to me and life has been poorer without it as our places of entertainment have undergone their longest shutdown since the time of Oliver Cromwell. The Nazis didn’t manage to close the West End, but the Coronavirus did.
Not that there hasn’t been theatre over these past 13 peculiar months. Aside from those brief real-world flurries of positivity last summer and in early December, when venues opened at reduced capacity to socially distanced audiences, there has been a relentless onslaught of work online, spearheaded by the National Theatre broadcasting a different NT Live production each week during the first lockdown. It was a noble gesture of solidarity, a candle flickering in the darkness, but there can be no getting around the fact that shows conceived to be performed in an actual theatre in front of a live audience are definitely best consumed that way. Watching something on a tiny screen while sitting on my bed with only a bored cat for company cannot begin to compete with the experience of being in each individual venue, appreciating its quirks and idiosyncrasies and sharing the same air as fellow spectators and the actors themselves. The only thing to be said for watching at home is that the queue for the ladies’ loos has, for once, not been an issue.
All wings of the theatre industry have rightly pulled together to become the artform’s champion and there is particular cheerleading from those invested in seeing West End venues reopen at their full capacity as soon as possible. Chief among the new shows designed to tempt back audiences is Anna X, starring Emma Corrin, Princess Di in Netflix’s The Crown, who will make her West End debut in a story of fashion shows, identity and insecurity among New York’s social elite.
The subsidised sector, cushioned just a little by government money, has taken things more gently. It will be immensely heartening, not to mention symbolic, to see the National Theatre back in live action once more, after cruelly having had two of its attempted restart productions scuppered by the sudden imposition of lockdowns. Its grandest auditorium, the Olivier, reopens with a new spin on the Dylan Thomas masterpiece Under Milk Wood, starring that wild-haired Welsh hero of lockdown television, Staged’s Michael Sheen. Surely a canny producer is hard at work plotting the perfect show to reunite Sheen and his partner in comedy crime, David Tennant.
We have been sorely deprived of song over the last year, which makes new productions of classic musicals a tantalising prospect. That sylvan idyll of a venue, the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park, will host Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel; I relish the idea of hearing the haunting anthem You’ll Never Walk Alone float over the dusky treetops. The country’s most consistently high-achieving regional venue, Chichester Festival Theatre, offers more R and H in the form of South Pacific; it will be fascinating to see how some tricky racial politics go down in our current combustible times. How pleasing it will be, though, to discuss the shows that are on, rather than to lament those that are not.