John Nathan

It will soon be time to conquer our many fears

August 07, 2020 11:09

Last week I was on the panel of one of Hampstead Synagogue’s “Where are we now?” discussions. The online series takes stock of how the pandemic has affected the Jewish community and this time the focus was culture.

How, messaged one viewer, might she be reassured that when theatres eventually opened their doors, it would be safe to walk through?

It was a well timed question. This week is a milestone of sorts in theatre’s fightback against Covid. For the first time since March 17, the doors of a London theatre have reopened. Granted, Blindness, which is at the Donmar Warehouse, isn’t exactly a play. It is more of a sound installation, using eerily convincing binaural sound technology, in which socially distancing audiences of 40 are allowed to pass through the building and the dangerous world within, conjured by Simon Stephens’s adaptation of the dystopian novel by the Nobel Prize-winning José Saramago.

The story tells of a mysterious epidemic that causes blindness. The symptoms happen so quickly that in the opening scene, described by narrator Juliet Stevenson, who plays the suburban wife of an optician, we hear of a driver who was able to see perfectly well when he stopped at a set of traffic lights, but is completely blind by the time they turn green.

What is so encouraging is that ticket sales have been so strong. Clearly there is a huge appetite to get back into a theatre, even for a show that is not really a play and provides no escape from the pandemic. The very theatrical act of experiencing something communally is enough to draw people in.

So it was with this in mind that during the Hampstead Synagogue’s webcast I banged on about the sterling work being done by producers such as Nica Burns and Andrew Lloyd Webber.

I was referring to the 48-page plan modelled by Burns to open theatres safely; the complete disinfection of buildings; mandatory face coverings (natch); hand sanitiser everywhere, not to mention temperature-testing queues.

There are door handles being tested by Lloyd Webber at The Palladium that kill off 99.9 per cent of bacteria and viruses; one-way human traffic systems; contactless tickets and mobile-phone-filled NHS test and trace forms.

Yet, as as I gushed, I became aware of a kernel of doubt. I felt like a sergeant telling his squaddies that it would all be fine after I blew my whistle, the signal for going over the top.

Silly, I know. There will be no machine guns waiting for us when the theatres reopen. When they do, it looks as though playhouses will be among the safest environments outside our homes.

Yet, like Tevye, I am caught in a cycle of constantly weighing the pros and cons.

“On the one hand” fear of Covid is totally understandable, especially for theatregoers who are in their 60s and beyond, and who for some shows such as Tom Stoppard’s Leopoldstadt represent a high proportion of the audience. “On the other hand”, with all that is being done to reassure us, too little has been said about our own responsibility to keep our fear proportional to the threat.

It turns out that the war on Covid is as psychological as it is medical. It is up to us to prevent that kernel of fear from getting the better of us, and to bravely, when the time is right, pull on our masks, keep our distance and get back to the theatre where we belong.

August 07, 2020 11:09

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