A timely pause

14 April 2020

We don't need to fill the theatre void with recordings – we need to take time to grieve, says Liam Rees

One of the unexpected side effects of a total shutdown of the theatre world is that (in amongst bingeing Tiger King and trying to remember what day it is) I’m actually watching more theatre than ever (except for at the Edinburgh Fringe – RIP). From the National Theatre and Royal Court in London to Germany’s Schaubühne, Gorki, and Munich Kammerspiele the arts world has been quick to put their productions online. This crisis has presented us with the chance to see the fault-lines in our society laid bare and the same seems true for our theatre cultures. What is theatre’s role in society and how should it respond to the Covid-19 crisis, if at all?

The overwhelming response seems simple: keep up momentum and produce more. More recordings, more live streams, more rapid responses. The public needs us to lift their spirits! The people need theatre! It’s one of the noblest ideals in the arts world, that a communal experience may not be an antidote to our problems but at least a form of respite. It’s telling that the NT chose to stream One Man, Two Guvnors and that it’s already had over 2.5 million views. Sometimes we need theatre to be simple escapism, popular isn’t necessarily a pejorative, and perhaps a bit of farce is what people need right now. Make ‘em laugh, make ‘em laugh, and all that. Meanwhile, Cyprus Avenue from the Royal Court provides black humour and horrific violence galore and the Germans have put on a banquet of irreverently Brechtian classics. What more could you want?

Well I want to be there. I miss seeing things go wrong. I miss being able to choose what I look at onstage. I miss not being able to pause it and just submitting to the experience. I miss the collective coming-to-terms with what we’ve just experienced. I miss the wildly different reactions in real time. I want to be in the audience for One Man, Two Guvnors; the high-energy slapstick simply didn’t translate on screen for me but, in person, laughter can be gloriously infectious. I want to be in Munich for Christopher Rüping’s Drums in the Night; the Brechtian aesthetic is cool but I want to experience the climactic moment when the play becomes an intervention. The same is true for Thomas Ostermeier’s grotesque, clown-like Richard III which draws the audience in as conspirators.

Covid-19 has made our interdependence (on a local and international level) and need for connection abundantly clear, perhaps that’s why theatre has felt such a pressing need to step in. Yet in a time of state-mandated social isolation, theatre’s greatest asset is rendered impotent. So perhaps we should resist the urge to relentlessly fill the void with simulacrums of theatre that can never fully live up to the real thing. We’re going through collective trauma and this ‘keep calm and carry on’ attitude feels uncomfortably familiar to that perennial first stage of grief, denial. You can’t recover without rest.

The work that’s most inspired me and given me a sense of community hasn’t been recordings, but the workshops and panel discussions from NSDF and beyond. The Munich Kammerspiele hosted a panel of queer, gender nonconforming, trans-women of colour who explicity discussed the trauma around Covid-19 and how to deal with it. One speaker, Alok Vaid-Menon, outlined that the most marginalized groups have been living with the present reality for years and thus their coping strategies are the way forward – contemporary mutual aid groups having their roots in disability activism for example. Meanwhile Travis Alabanza reworked Before I Step Outside [You Love Me] about the fear of being out in public as a trans person, for a time of social isolation, acknowledging the virtual space between us, that the integral audience interaction couldn’t happen, and paradoxically was all the more powerful.

In Belgium, Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s Re:Rosas allows us to be not only consumers but active participants in the art itself by teaching us the choreography. It feels like an amazing companion to RashDash’s workshop earlier in the week. It’s a gesture that goes some way towards bridging the inexorable gap and invites a serious discussion about how we make, disseminate and experience the arts in the future.

This is a rare opportunity for us to slow down and let the system grind to a halt. Let’s take some time to grieve what’s been lost but also remember that absence makes the heart grow fonder. Think on what you miss most in this time and what you’ve been happy to live without and then we can focus on building something better out of that.

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Photograph: Beatrice Debney