Theatre in peril

Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, Bankside, London. Image by John Wildgoose.

Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre and the Donmar Warehouse in London have told a Government enquiry that they are in jeopardy of closing for good due to the pandemic. Meanwhile, beyond London, Theatre Royal Plymouth has warned it faces closure without long-term government support and the management of Southport Theatre has gone into liquidation.

Early responses to the to the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee inquiry into the impact of Covid-19 have outlined the damage facing the sector – with predictions of widespread venue closures, job losses and long-term difficulties for those venues, companies and professionals surviving into 2021.

Respondents including Shakespeare’s Globe, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society and Really Useful Group are concerned by the likelihood of a decline in audiences for theatres when they are able to reopen and the difficulties of operating with social distancing in place. Older theatregoers and international tourists may not be returning to theatre for some time, representing the loss of a major part of theatre audiences.

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful Group, a production company and owner of several West End theatres, has said it is facing a loss of £6.2 million a week in global box office sales.

The Royal Court in London has said most theatres will ‘run dry of cash’ by September at the latest.

The Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society has estimated the deficit facing venues that usually take part in the festival at about £21 million. It warns that without financial support of £1 million the Fringe Society itself ‘will face significant costs with existential consequences’.

HQ Theatres, which operates 13 venues around the UK including the Wyvern Theatre in Swindon and the White Rock Theatre in Hastings, has suggested that a number of theatres will close permanently in the short to mid-term.

Industry bodies warn that ‘we do not yet know how audiences will respond’ when theatres can reopen, and state ‘early indications are that people in the UK are feeling particularly anxious about public assembly, particularly indoors. Older audiences are a particular concern: indications that older people may be asked to continue to self-isolate beyond the lifting of lockdown means those theatres and companies who have strong older audiences will be affected for longer.’

They also warn that social distancing measures will ‘reduce available seating such that auditoriums will only have between 15% and 30% of seats available to sell, depending on the building’.

‘It is highly likely that theatres will be operating below usual capacity for many months after reopening. It is therefore vital that clear information on timelines for lockdown and social distancing are shared as quickly as possible. There is a clear capacity below which it will be uneconomic for theatre buildings to open without additional funding,’ they warn.