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.