Edinburgh’s theatres will be open without social distancing by September… fingers crossed - Liam Rudden
Over the past four weeks, I've enjoyed exclusive access to Edinburgh's four major theatres - The Playhouse, Royal Lyceum, King's and Festival Theatre - to reflect on their year or so in lockdown while looking ahead to a return to normal, whatever that may look like.
Surprisingly, despite the length of closure, images I had in mind of dust coated auditoriums were quickly dispelled, all four venues looking as impressive as they might the day after an opening night.
With 3,059 seats, a capacity just short of the King's and Festival theatres combined, The Playhouse was first on my list. It's big. Still the biggest proscenium arch theatre auditorium in Europe. If any of the Capital's theatres could make socially distanced performances work, it would surely be the iconic Greenside Place venue. Yet, right from the start of lockdown, theatre managers and chief executives I’ve spoken to across the city have stressed it would be impossible to viably reopen with social distancing in place.
Each venue had their own approach in place, of course. The Playhouse adopted a rolling schedule of postponement announcements. The Festival and King's drew up a series of plans based on different reopening dates and the Lyceum turned to streaming, having adapted their stage by once again extending it out over the stalls.
Speaking to staff at all four theatres, one thing was clear, not one of them expected the lockdown to last as long as it has. Most reckoned between eight weeks to three months. The cancellation of the Festival seems to have been the moment of truth for many. The realisation, as one person put it, "that we were in this for the long haul".
But then if you'd told me a couple of years back there would be such a period of theatre closure in my lifetime I wouldn't have believed it either. Even during the 1918 'Spanish' flu pandemic there was no enforced lockdown, although many theatres did choose to close. Go further back, however, and history shows the more things change the more they stay the same. Yes, the closing of theatres during plague and pandemic goes back hundreds of years. In Shakespeare's time, between 1603 and 1613, William Baker records in his book ‘William Shakespeare’ that, due to outbreaks of the Black Death, theatres were closed for a total of 78 months of that decade.
Then, just as now, the curtains eventually rose again and all the signs are suggesting that is where we are heading now. With everyone in the at risk categories and many more besides expected to have received their second jag by July or August, I wouldn't be surprised to find that social distancing is a thing of the past in theatres by September, if not then certainly by November.
Hand sanatising and masks may well remain and, unfortunately, it’s looking more and more likely some sort of electronic ‘vaccine passport’ will be adopted too, a price we may have to pay for the safe return of big shows and full houses.