Among the saddest sights in half-empty London are its theatres. Walk along Shaftesbury Avenue and adjoining streets, and there is theatre after theatre advertising empty shows. The Victorian and Edwardian grand buildings, with their stony solidity, graced with sculptural curlicues and busts of Shakespeare, proudly bearing the names of theatrical greats, squeezed tightly into the maze of London’s West End, have been brought up face to face with hard reality. Their time is up.
The theatres still carry the brightly-coloured posters and cast photographs that were designed to entice us in. The quotes from reviewers shout out to us with such insistence. Blithe Spirit promises us ‘comic gold’; Tom Stoppard’s Leopoldstadt is ‘both epic and intimate’; Les Miserables is ‘still revolutionary’; Matilda ‘explodes onto the stage’; The Mousetrap is ‘a celebration of storytelling’. They point to the excitements within like fairground barkers.
They are shouting for a world that is lost. The theatres are dark, the staff are furloughed, the cast members are resting. All that they offered belongs to time lost. They thought they were enticing but in fact they are mourning. Remember such things, for we do not think that you may see their kind again.
Maybe the time will come when they are revived once more, but with the loss of habit may come the loss of purpose. Their fate may be only to serve as reminders of the way we no longer do things. Here is where we used to gather before we knew differently.
Empty theatres are like empty thoughts. The space where once there was light and promise has lost its purpose. Why write? Why think? Why plan for anything at all? Everything in an absent time feels like a performance to no one. We knew such shows, once upon a time, but a memory is not a reason.
The thoughts will come again, but knowing that they can so quickly vanish may be this pandemic’s most insidious legacy. We may look for the bright lights, but how suddenly the audience can disappear. It leaves the performer in us to wonder – just why did I learn all those words anyway?