Theatre in Wales

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The Comfortless Tragedy of Isolated Hearts

My Year of Theatre

Closure , Theatre of Wales and England , December 27, 2020
My Year of Theatre by Closure 2020 will be subject to an explosion of social history. The National Library has opened a portal where anyone may lodge their own experience. Parthian Books and Seren have both published first accounts, very different, of the year of disease.

For this site I contributed articles of four kinds. The saddest was made of tributes to those who were lost to COVID-19 or to other causes. I summed up events in the arts, or non-arts, and looked at some general themes in “Summing It Up”. From the years of reviewing I boiled the many productions down to a list “101 Nights to Remember.”

* * * *

Mainstream media continued over the year and articles appeared about women and men normally hyper-busy in the arts. A well-known name from film and television confessed to day upon day of lethargic shapelessness.

A BBC Wales late year news item featured a sound engineer normally employed at big live events. The camera showed him seated at a vast sound desk. It switched to an outside shot in which he- admittedly cheery enough for the camera- raced along a Barry street collecting household recycling bags.

The Sunday Times featured Anna-Jane Casey. Aged sixteen, she was in “Cats” and is normally in the likes of “Chicago”, “West Side Story”, “Billy Elliott”. Her 2020 week changed to a 9:00 AM arrival at a parcel warehouse in Maidstone Monday to Wednesday. Her husband did the same Thursday to Saturday. The rate is £1 a parcel, the daily quota between 80-150 deliveries

Her tone is not downbeat. “I know so many people in theatre who haven't found work at all this year. The work is mentally and physically exhausting. People are lovely 99 percent of the time. There's one lovely family I often deliver to and the lady always says “Wait there, my darling”, then runs inside and returns with banana bread or a brownie.”

The feature ends with “I think 2021 is going to be amazing. Bring on the vaccine. It will mean theatres can reopen.”

* * * *

Theatre's leaders, after the first shock, spent much of the year in exasperation. The airports of Britain were open unlike in Australasia. Checks and conditions were minimal. Performance was decreed dangerous.

In the winter 30 London theatres opened, their premises disease-proofed at their own expense, their capacities reduced by a half. For a week 11,0000 attended nightly and then closure again.

Not a single case of COVID-19, they say, has been linked to an entertainment venue. The subsidised sector was not able to speak. The commercial sector, not in receipt of funds, is not subject to conditions of silence imposed by Westminster and, presumably, Cardiff Bay.

Cameron Mackintosh of the closures: “breaks any sense of trust between us as an industry and the government departments we're trying to build a rapport with.”

Sonia Friedman: “This feels like the final straw: proof that this government does not understand theatre.”

* * * *

I had never read much in the way of public policy pronouncements before 2020. When I did I was put in mind of of Matthew Arnold. In “Culture and Anarchy” he observed:

“Plenty of people will try to give an intellectual food prepared and adapted in the way they think proper.

“Plenty of people will try to indoctrinate...the set of ideas and judgments constituting the creed of their own profession or party.

“But culture works differently...it does not try to win them for this or that sect of its own, with ready-made judgements and watchwords. “

Arnold saw that in 1869.

In the Senedd the CWLCC spoke:

“Cultural groups have been seeking to adapt and the lock-down has resulted in an outpouring of digital content. The Committee heard the answer is not for arts organisations simply to go digital as this could mirror the problems with access to the arts which already exist. There is also the danger that people will come to expect creative content to be free and always available. It would also mean a loss to related businesses dependent on live venues such as the hospitality sector.”

The paragraph is revealing. We have theatre in part to keep pubs in business. Lack of access is a touchy subject. The verb “to build” is commonly used. But it is applied without thought. Community is a self-organising emergent phenomenon. So too nation and culture.

All organisations are better off sticking to core activities. The state would be better off concentrating on why humanity created states in the first place and then beyond: security, infrastructure, public health, common spaces.

* * * *

A myriad voices on culture. The best of travel is serendipity. In the now-blessed interval between lock-downs I happened across this stone in a rural graveyard. Mind is a network of association. To be there then without intention was to recall Nicol Williamson as Bill Maitland, Alan Bates as Colonel Redl and on this site, March 2010, Richard, aka Ernie, Hull as Jimmy Porter in Aberystwyth's Studio.

David Hare gave the eulogy to John Osborne at a memorial service on 2nd June 1995 in the actors' theatre, Saint Giles-in-the-Fields in Covent Garden. One playwright said of another, his senior, that he had “devoted his life to trying to forge some sort of connection between the acuteness of his mind and the exceptional power of his heart.”

Later Hare gave an Osborne memorial lecture at Hay's 2002 Festival. The current that ran through Osborne's work he called “the comfortless tragedy of isolated hearts “

It is a phrase to savour. It speaks for Christmas 2020.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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