(Matt Wolf’s article appeared in The New York Times, 12/17; via Pam Green; Photo: At the National Theater in London in September. The city’s theaters were closed and reopened twice in 2020, then closed a third time.Credit…Lauren Fleishman for The New York Times.)
The Times’s theater critics in London, Paris and Berlin reflect on a year of closures, reopenings, restrictions and curfews, in which the show somehow went on.
Theater of the absurd has nothing on the bizarre scenario endured by Britain’s playhouses during 2020. March 16 was the first of several doomsdays on which the coronavirus pandemic forced them to close their doors, bringing to a halt a theatrical economy worth billions of pounds.
Then came months of nothing, followed by the gradual emergence of outdoor shows, then indoor performances, when financially practical: no big musicals or Shakespeares, just bite-size plays, performed in auditoriums newly configured to meet government guidelines.
Several pioneering venues — the Bridge Theater, in London, pre-eminently — opened again at the end of the summer, but not for long. They, too, were shuttered again by a second lockdown, in early November — albeit a shorter one, which lifted on Dec. 2.
This was replaced by a tiered system of geographical restrictions, which meant that theaters in parts of the country were open, while others had to stay shut. In London, this critic’s diary was briefly filled with press night appointments that recalled the halcyon days of old. But now, as of Dec. 16, the city has entered the grim “Tier 3,” and that surge in activity has proved to be short-lived — at least for in-person performances, rather than events streamed via the internet.
Theaters have responded to these whiplash changes with a nimbleness that wasn’t in evidence this time last year. (Equally improbable back then was the notion of socially distanced seating, with legroom worthy of an airline’s first class.) Shows have learned to be readily adaptable for online distribution: That was the path taken by “Death of England: Delroy,” the production chosen to reopen the National Theater, in November. Its opening night turned out to be the closing one, too, when the second national lockdown was announced, but it went out on YouTube later that month. That brought Roy Williams and Clint Dyer’s fiery solo play to audiences worldwide, and confirmed the prevailing awareness that smaller was better in these corona times.