Old Vic artistic director reflects on ‘severely bruising year’ for theatre

Laura Harding, PA Deputy Entertainment Editor
·4-min read

The artistic director of The Old Vic theatre has reflected on “a severely bruising year” but said the theatre industry will play a “crucial role in rebuilding live connections and shared experiences”.

The 1,000-seat theatre, which was established in 1818, has been dark since March 2020, when theatres around the UK closed because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

It has staged a number of plays in its In Camera series, with the actors performing live for the audience viewing at home.

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At Christmas, it offered the UK’s care homes free tickets to its online festive show – a performance of A Christmas Carol starring Andrew Lincoln as Ebenezer Scrooge.

The theatre, which is a registered charity, does not receive a regular public subsidy.

It received a £3 million grant, the highest on offer, from the Government’s Culture Recovery Fund.

Artistic director Matthew Warchus said: “It was a year ago this week that we closed The Old Vic’s doors to the public, cancelled the last few weeks of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, and postponed the highly anticipated new production of Amy Herzog’s 4000 Miles.

“At the same time we also made a commitment to do everything possible to maintain some kind of meaningful connection with you, our audiences, during this difficult time. We had no idea, of course, that those initial weeks of lockdown would turn into a year of hardship, challenge and great loss.

“Thanks to our incredible team of staff and associates, and exceptional philanthropic and Government support, plus many, many video conference calls, we have not only been able to uphold that commitment, in fact we’ve connected with more people than I could have imagined, right across the globe.

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“And now it seems we are all finally at a turning point where the hopeful glow on the horizon is no longer just a mirage but a real destination to set our sights on.

“The theatre industry has had a severely bruising year but what hasn’t dimmed is its eagerness to step up and play its crucial role in rebuilding live connections and shared experiences.

“Delivering uplifting and mind-expanding stories, in a safe and joyful way, after more than a year dominated by separation, fear, anger and sadness is utterly vital and it’s something we can’t wait to resume.”

Some of the theatre’s other digital performances have included Lungs, starring Claire Foy and Matt Smith, and Three Kings, starring Andrew Scott.

Warchus’s message of hope comes as a survey from the Society of London Theatre (SOLT) found that more than 95% of theatre organisations are worse off due to Covid, and a quarter of freelancers have gone out of business or ceased trading.

The survey was completed by 944 theatre venues, venue groups, non-venue theatre businesses and individual theatre freelancers.

Some 53 of the 186 theatre organisations answering a question about financial loss due to Covid reported a loss of more than £1 million each, including 16 organisations that have lost more than £5 million each.

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Julian Bird, chief executive of SOLT and UK Theatre, said: “At that fateful moment a year ago when we were forced to close theatres, we could never have imagined that venues would remain closed today.

“It has been a year of incredible challenges, and would have been even bleaker were it not for Government support schemes including the Culture Recovery Fund, furlough and SEISS.

“It has also been a year in which we have truly witnessed the resilience, creativity and community-mindedness of theatre, from digital innovations allowing streamed productions to reach a global audience, to theatres creating educational and wellbeing resources, and venues offering themselves as vaccine centres or hosting pioneering scientific research on measures to prevent Covid spread.

“We look forward to continuing to work closely with Government and industry partners, welcoming audiences safely back into theatres and playing a part in the national economic and social recovery.”