If Japan and South Korea can reopen theatres with masks, then why can’t we?

Theatre critic Christopher Walker argues the survival of London’s Theatres requires lateral thinking…

For those of us with theatre in our blood, the current crisis has a bitterness that turns to despair.

When I heard Judi Dench talk of the risk that great venues like Southwark’s Old Vic might close, and “not open again in (her) lifetime,” I was moved to tears.

The situation is desperate. This week’s announcement of a £1.57bn bail-out by the government came not a moment too soon.

But to make sure that money buys us the survival of our industry, then there is only one objective that matters. We must get audiences back fast.

Doing that requires some lateral thinking, and learning lessons from overseas.

The Theatre is a vital part of who we are as Londoners. If something as simple as wearing masks will save it – then bring it on.

The Emergency package announced this week was a case of better late than never. It followed weeks of pressure and announcements from many leading venues that they were on the brink of collapse.

Some 700,000 jobs are thought to be at risk across the UK, and as the culture secretary Oliver Dowden noted “our arts and culture are the soul of our nation. They make our country great”.

In these circumstances, there was for once almost universal approval from an industry normally highly critical of the Government.

The National Theatre stated it felt “feel very positive that this major investment will reach and sustain the vital talent and infrastructure,” while Julian Bird, the chief executive of London Theatre, said he “hugely welcomed” the funding.

But at the same time industry commentators observed that there would be no real revival until there was an end to social distancing.

Theatres simply can’t make money at the reduced audience that a two-metre rule would imply.

Even while announcing good news, Oliver Dowden put a dampner on things by saying he really couldn’t see how the Christmas pantomime season would be possible. Really?

On Radio 4’s Today programme, Dowden was asked the crucial question many in the industry are asking. Why is it safe for someone to sit so close to another person for hours on a long haul flight, but not in a theatre?

Dowden dodged the answer. Maybe the reality is that it is not really that safe, but the government cannot face banning air travel.

Or maybe it is that there is one crucial difference. Air passengers are required to wear masks.

The day after the bailout, the President of the UK’s National Academy of Science announced that there was strong evidence that masks protected both the wearer and those around them and that the UK was “way behind” other countries.

A study found that only 25 per cent of people in the UK wore masks, compared to 64 per cent in Spain, 66 per cent in New York state, and some 83 per cent now in Italy.

A University of California study recently found that once you get to 80 per cent of the population wearing masks you don’t need a lockdown at all. Something well understood in Asia.

Many large Asian countries have stayed largely open, or closed for very short periods. But they have worn masks.

This made me think of Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s observation that the South Korean production of Phantom of the Opera had closed for only a very short time, and then re-opened with appropriate precautions.

The National Theatre of Japan is reopening this week, with temperature checks and compulsory mask-wearing.

If they can do it, why can’t we? As the National Academy of Science said, not wearing a mask should be considered as socially unacceptable as not wearing a seat belt.

If we can accept that, we shall save ourselves… and our theatres, too.

Pictured top: The Globe Theatre on the South Bank


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