The year theatres went dark

Our theatre critic, John Nathan, looks back at 2020


There was life before Leopldstadt and, for theatre-goers who made it through to the end of 2020, life after.

Tom Stoppard’s most recent and autobiographical work was — and is — not exactly brimful of the quality that, after he burst onto the scene in the 1960s, became known as Stoppardian. But for all the plaudits — and yes, criticisms — attached to the work it sits in this year’s decimated theatre diary as the most significant opening before playhouses closed on March 17.

In the months that followed, theatre-going became something you did on a laptop, as was going to school. The year’s diary and digital calenders now serve as a memorial to the shows that Covid killed. Among the most significant of these was Rebecca Taichman’s much-anticipated production of Paula Vogel’s play Indecent, which follows the artists who risked their careers to perform Sholem Ash’s play The God of Vengeance. At around the time the show was previewing at the Menier Chocolate Factory (donations via the venues website) London theatre was doing its bit to tackle a different virus — antisemitism.

While in the West End Stoppard’s play followed the fate of a Viennese family before and after the Holocaust, Stephen Laughton’s ambitious One Jewish Boy documented the legacy of an anti-semitic attack. Meanwhile The Doctor — Robert Icke’s freely adapted version of Arthur Schnitzler’s Professor Bernhardi which starred Juliet Stevenson — updated early 20th century antisemitism to toady’s version. Or it would have if the pandemic had not put the kibosh on the production’s transfer from the Almeida to the Duke of York’s Theatre.

There is hope that it may still get to the West End in the spring by which time there should also be installed a revival of C.P. Taylor’s Good with David Tennant and Elliot Levey, one of the most powerful plays about antisemitism ever written.

It is difficult to imagine theatre life returning to the old normal by then, though. Online performance will still have its place. It was not until May that Simon McBurney’s webcast of his one-person play The Encounter proved that digital versions of live theatre had the capacity to thrill with the unexpected. It also became clear that if a performance is strong enough — as was Maureen Lipman’s in Rose Martin Sherman’s one-woman fictional memoir of a Shoah survivor — a viewer can be as glued to a laptop screen as they are by the flashy fast-cutting used by a Netflix film.

Also outstanding in this emerging method was Belarus Free Theatre who turned live online performance into an urgent art form as its country and people reeled under violence and oppression meted out by its government.

It was not until September that a full-sized theatre production was able to take to the stage. You would hope that such a moment might be reserved for a something brilliant. Instead it was given to Sleepless, a musical adaptation of Nora Ephron’s much loved movie romance. Alas this stage version was only memorable for being a pioneer of Covid testing and socially distanced rehearsal techniques by its determined producer Michael Rose.

It was left to Bridge Theatre to keep the flame of live performance lit with its superbly performed revival of Alan Bennett’s incomparable Talking Heads. While behind the scenes the venue’s artistic director Nicholas Hytner was one of the heavy hitters who argued for the government to save the nation’s cultural soul, his Bridge Theatre almost single-handedly kept audiences safe while giving them an irresistible reason to venture back into a playhouse.

One day theatre will have a new award. It will be for those who kept theatre alive as the pandemic raged. Hytner should be one recipient. Producer Nica Burns, who was instrumental in researching the methods by which shows can be staged, is another.

Thank you to both.


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