When will theatres reopen? “Not in my lifetime,” says Dame Judi Dench.

“It’s a desperate feeling” admits the Royal Shakespeare Company actress, as she fears the industry to which she owes her career is on the “brink of collapse.”

“I never imagined I would be in the theatre,” said Dame Judi Dench, speaking to Channel 4 News. “It is my passion and I can’t imagine Britain without its arts heritage.” Yet, it is estimated that by the end of the year, 70% of the UK’s theatres will be bankrupt.

The theatre industry, which last year generated £1.3 billion in ticket sales, was forced to close on March 16, following the government’s banning of mass gatherings to quell the spread of Covid-19. This fortnight has seen the return of the Premier League with Project Restart and the opening of pubs, restaurants and cinemas on July 4. But Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden’s five-step road-map for theatres provides no timescale for their reopening; thus, their future remains shrouded in uncertainty. 

Dench fears that the current state of theatres is being treated as a temporary side-effect of the ongoing pandemic. She warned that, without a significant cash injection, UK theatre’s being in the dark could become a permanent and bleak reality. It is not just actors’ livelihoods that have been adversely affected by the closures: they put pit musicians, front of house, box office, backstage, costume and lighting staff out of work too.

Dench’s concerns have been echoed by West End creatives Sharon D. Clarke and Carrie Hope Fletcher who have signed and circulated a petition calling for greater governmental support to the arts, specifically theatre and music. The petition has received upwards of 160,000 signatures and the results of its parliamentary debate are awaiting publication.

In light of this continued incertitude, Cameron Mackintosh and Delfont Mackintosh Theatres have announced that its West End productions of Les Misérables, Phantom of the Opera, Hamilton and Mary Poppins will be unable to return until 2021 at the earliest. Consequently, “a process of consultation over potential redundancies for all employees on these productions” has begun. Phantom‘s planned fourteen-month UK tour has been cancelled, having only played its opening date, and a “period of extended closure” has been announced for the thirty-four-year-old West End production. A number of remedial works are required for Her Majesty’s Theatre itself and set pieces are “coming to the end of their natural [lives].”

The “urgently needed” modernisation of the West End set and theatre, coupled with the fleetingness of the Phantom tour, has given rise to online speculation that when the production returns to the West End, it will not be original but instead “reinvented” staging with a reduced orchestra and pre-recorded elements. Actor John Barrowman, who played Raoul in London’s 1992 production, has weighed in on the rumours. He tweeted “if it’s true, it’s a disgusting way to treat the performers in the show who slog it out 8 times a week […] they are doing it to slash salaries and not pay the creatives their rightful royalties.” Andrew Lloyd Webber, the show’s composer, has neither confirmed nor denied Phantom‘s fate, but declared on Twitter: “Please believe me. I’m doing everything in my power to ensure that when the Phantom returns it is the brilliant original.”

The Globe Theatre in Bankside called for urgent funds to avoid insolvency in May. Photo: Hulki Okan Tabak/Unsplash.

But it is not just the West End with which Dench’s words and Phantom‘s difficulties resonate: local theatres, which are important to so many, are also struggling. Nuffield Southampton Theatres has permanently closed its two venues, making 86 staff members redundant, while The Old Vic, Theatre Royal Plymouth, and Theatre Royal Newcastle are just some of the UK’s many regional theatres to have announced the beginning of redundancy consultations.

Norwich Theatre Royal has launched the Norwich Theatre Crisis Appeal to raise the funds necessary for operation. As a registered charity with no public funding, it has lost 95% of its income since closing its doors in March. Likewise, the Nottingham Playhouse has set in motion the Curtain Up Appeal to supplement its lost income.

Tales such as these are not unique, prompting concerned students to launch the #StudentsSavingOurTheatres campaign to help theatres remain afloat. Theatrical companies nationwide have been supporting their local theatre by partaking in weekly fundraising challenges, most recently completing “5k a Day” in whatever form they choose. Celebrities Michael Palin, Joanna Lumley and Robert Lindsey have also engaged in the efforts to save the performing arts, starring in a virtual performance of Waiting for Godot which raised £35,000 for the Royal Theatrical Fund.

To support #StudentsSavingOurTheatres, you can visit the Crowdfunder page. You can also donate to Norwich Theatre Royal and the Nottingham Playhouse’s appeal online.

Feature photo: Mihai Halmi-Nistor/Unsplash.

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