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Theatre in the time of Corona

Nothing Spreads Like Fear. This is the tag-line for Contagion, Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 film about a global pandemic and the subsequent loss of social order before scientists eventually identify and contain the virus with a new vaccine. Given some of the hysteria in response to the real-life Covid-19 Coronavirus pandemic we’re currently in the thick of, there are few more apt descriptions of the toilet-roll panic buyers currently turning supermarkets into Ballardian wastelands. In the current climate, Soderbergh’s film sounds like both prophecy and warning.

I missed Contagion when it first came out, though I intend rectifying this oversight utilising the new breadth of downtime I’ve suddenly acquired since all the theatres closed this week. It appears I’m not the only one keen to see the film. According to my colleague Russell Leadbetter, who has seen it, Contagion is currently at number two in the Amazon Prime chart, with its level of online hires second only to Harry Potter.

Given that real time social life in public spaces has been pretty much outlawed, there are probably worse things you could watch over the next however long it is we must collectively self-isolate and socially distance. The Andromeda Strain, the 1971 film based on Michael Crichton’s novel about the devastating effect of an alien organism, might also appeal.

We are, after all, effectively living in a 1970s science-fiction film. This was brought home on Monday afternoon, when I visited Oran Mor in Glasgow to see The Beaches of St. Valery. Stuart Hepburn’s Second World War set play was this week’s contribution to the west end venue’s A Play, a Pie and a Pint lunchtime theatre phenomenon, and is likely to have been my last theatre reviewing gig for some time.

While the tabloid headlines proclaimed ‘NO PUBS’ and ‘NO BINGO’ on neglected news-stands, on a ghostly Glasgow Underground, billboards advertising events at Tramway, the King’s and the Pavilion now resembled monuments to shows that have been laid to rest before they could even open. It was the same with the plethora of posters lining the walls of every café and bar on Great Western Road.

That morning, the King’s and Festival Theatres in Edinburgh cancelled their immediate programmes. Experimental music festival Counterflows pulled the plug entirely, just as the Aye Write! literary festival in Glasgow had done a couple of days before. Edinburgh International Festival, meanwhile, postponed this week’s launch of its 2020 programme, which will hopefully still take place in August.

All of this followed the Scottish Government’s advice that gatherings of 500 or more should be curtailed. Creative Scotland’s statement that all existing funding arrangements would be honoured even if events were cancelled was a sensible response, which the artistic community needed to hear.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s advice on Monday couldn’t have been more different. Rather than ordering necessary and legally binding blanket closure of all cultural venues, Johnson merely suggested people keep away from them. With none of the venues and organisations affected able to claim insurance because of this, this effectively throws every theatre and arts institution, every independent grassroots music venue, every community cafe and every freelance arts worker under Johnson’s ideologically inclined bus. This is the case for box office, front of house and bar staff as much as performers, technical and administrative staff and creative teams.

Since then, arts institutions and venues in Scotland and beyond have closed voluntarily. Their future survival remains uncertain. Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak’s statement on Tuesday outlining cash support and interest-based loans for small businesses in hardship won’t prevent venues from going under. Nor will it prevent freelance workers’ livelihoods from being destroyed.

The Federation of Scottish Theatre has now stepped up to argue its members’ corner. While this is good news, the damage has arguably already been done. Pitlochry Festival Theatre for instance, receive 86% of its revenue from ticket sales. Their new production of Barefoot in the Park looked set to be able to cover that and more, but was forced to close after one night.
The first theatrical casualty of Covid-19 happened two weeks earlier, when the two Italian dates of The Metamorphosis, Vanishing Point’s brilliantly realised staging of Franz Kafka’s novella, was cancelled. When Matthew Lenton’s production opened at the Tron Theatre in Glasgow, Kafka’s existential tale of a young man who wakes up one morning having turned into a giant bug had itself been transformed by current events.

Like Soderbergh’s film, the play had become about contagion and the fear it provokes. Or, as Vanishing Point themselves said after they were forced to pull all forthcoming Scottish dates of their tour on Tuesday, ‘It’s the strangest irony: a show that became about the moment we’re living in, being cancelled because of the moment we’re living in.’

With everyone is in isolated limbo, this is the time for hard talk. A substantial emergency package needs to be introduced as a matter of urgency. This shouldn’t be about propping up commercial companies able to roll with the punches. It should be about supporting those who, not just in the arts, walk a financial tightrope every day, knowing that one wrong move might see them tumble into unemployment, homelessness or worse.

The economic benefits of the arts have long been spelt out to politicians. The payback needs to start now. In the wake of Covid-19, this is the perfect time to fast-track a universal basic income many have spent years arguing for. Rather than create more debt, this would offer a vital safety net, not just for arts freelancers, but for all those whose jobs are precarious enough to fall prey to disasters like Covid-19.

As for theatre, like Vladimir and Estragon in Beckett’s piece of post-apocalyptic knockabout, Waiting for Godot, it will go on. The Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh put it best in their temporary closure announcement on Tuesday. ‘One day, this strange time will become a story which Scotland’s playwrights and theatre-makers will tell on our stages. And when they do, we hope you will join us to hear it.’

Start spreading the news. No fear involved.

The Herald, March 19th 2020



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