Day Thirty One

Posted: 2020-06-24 12:00:00


24th June

For any theatre buff- Anthony Sher’s Year of The King recalling his journey mounting Richard III at the RSC in 1984 is a seminal and essential read. Although some things have changed since then in how we make theatre, much has stayed exactly as it was and likely always has been. 

One of those key constants, so brilliantly described in that book, is the adrenalised rush leading up to an opening night. Sher is a great diarist who describes how the outside world fades further and further from view as a small team focussed on mounting the production and fending off ‘armageddon’ becoming single minded to the point of obsession on the task in hand. Everything else pales into background noise- normal life ceases, the show is the thing and it must go on. 

Anyone involved in theatre or indeed anyone living with anyone involved in the theatre will know too well that giddy singular feeling of being involved in what feels like the most important thing in all the world. For that heady, stressful, pressurised week you feel to all extents and purposes as if the expectations of the world rest on your shoulders. If anyone isn’t talking about your production they must be on another planet. It is breathless, exciting and exhausting. And just a bit ridiculous when you come up for air. Sher recalls Michael Gambon driving up from London to Stratford and marvelling at all the people getting on with their daily commute whilst he was driving up to the RSC to play ‘King fucking Lear’. When it’s good you see, it’s a bit like communing with the angels, you exist with words, character and language that live in other realms. Its magic, its alchemy at best it's transcendent. Its Art.

It’s also sometimes a lot of bollocks. 

But not always.

The most important and the least important thing.

Of course when put into any kind of wider context- it can be hard to remember how important it can be. As the Coronavirus pandemic has showed us, sometimes the arts feel at best a luxury items when fundamentals like our health and our economic survival become understandably much more immediate priorities. 

At the time of the lockdown it was amazing to see centre stage belong to the amazing key workers and NHS staff who helped prop up the country as most of us retreated behind closed doors. I think many within the arts suddenly found ourselves questioning our role, our purpose and what we could offer. 

The generosity of the industry was seen in the plethora of free content given up to the public domain- despite many of the people involved in all those free shows in often in financial need themselves. The National Theatre Live obviously one of many initiatives to keep stories and the arts alive and able for all to access from home.

It showcased the theatre community at its best but equally it has given us all pause for thought about the value we put on the arts in this country. As the majority of industries begin to return to some sense of normality, the theatre sector remains entirely in the dark, literally and metaphorically. 

We have no idea when, where or how theatres will return and if the shows can then go on. We don’t know how many more buildings and companies like mine will close, how many jobs and how much talent will be lost. I don’t know whether we will be one small cog in that mass of uncertainty, redundancies and closures. I hope not- but some things stand outside of our immediate control.

So whilst we have been locked up in the midst of this poorly timed heat wave battling melting computers and overloaded internet connections, fighting on all fronts to get this show ready for release, I am aware that the context for this happening is the biggest existential threat to the survival of the theatre for centuries amidst the worst pandemic to hit the world in a century. 

I suspect this could be the last diary entry, everything is now happening at once in a race to the line. Scenes from Act 2 edited by Tristan and his assistant Ethan are pinging into our mail on an hourly basis, and Dom is generating large files of his sound mixes all the whilst James is stuck in the upstairs sweltering attic still in khaki recording both the music and himself playing it in a last minute dash to the line.

In better moments it feels like it could almost be like the last session of a technical rehearsal in a theatre- surrounded by coffee cups, sandwich boxes and the detritus of days spent in the dark. And then the blinding light from the outside hits you and the sense of silently being cooked in an oven in front of the windows in your spare room remind you that we are a long way from that cool dark welcoming atmosphere of a theatre auditorium.

Writing this as I await the final sign off from Act 1 to ping into my inbox, I can hear James recording a quiet hymn from upstairs which drifts in and out on the wind providing welcome respite from the stifling humidity outside. David is pinging messages creating the last remaining digital backgrounds whilst Dom, Charlotte and Tristan embroil themselves in some technical discussion about the editing of the final scene. It’s a whir of creative energy. 

We haven’t climbed the mountain yet but are I think now closing in on the summit, I take a moment to look back down through the sunny haze back to the middle of May when we first set out on this crazy mission. I realise how far we’ve come and how next week I might miss this sense of common purpose and endeavour that has in turn  become, as ’twas ever thus, a sleepless dash to the first night.

I just hope it will be good, I hope people will watch it and I hope that the bloody technology works on the night. Above all else I am indebted to everyone who has come along this wild ride with me into the unknown making something that might just shine brightly for a small window and remind us how important it is to keep the delicate flame of theatre flickering in the darkness. Something out of nothing. Art. Maybe.

And now time to summon our collective energies and dose up on the caffeine as we push on for the final surge up to the summit and hope the view from there has been worth the climb.

Thanks for reading.