The latest relaxing of COVID restrictions has seen arts venues across Britain opening their doors after a second lockdown that, for many parts of the country, has lasted a gruelling six months. With cities like Manchester and London last autumn going into what was termed “Tier 4 restrictions” – basically do not leave home except for essential business and do not even think about leaving town – many Brits won’t have seen the inside of a pub for months, let alone the inside of a theatre, most of which shut up shop in March 2020.

Hamilton is waiting to re-open in August. Photo © Victoria Palace

So, this week has been cause for some celebration. However, it’s not quite as simple as all that, with the rules and regulations varying, depending on in which part of the UK you live. For example, from this week in England, arts venues are allowed to re-open if they agree to enforce a one-metre social distancing rule and restrict capacity to no more than 50% (and in addition there’s a cap of 1000 people allowed in any one venue). If you live in Scotland, on the other hand, conditions are much stricter. There, people are required to be two metres apart with a cap of 100, making putting on any kind of show pretty much out of the question for the present.

Over the last 14 months, the government’s Cultural Recovery Fund has been a lifeline, handing out grants and loans totalling 1.57 billion pounds (that’s nearly three billion Aussie dollars). While that has kept some companies and venues from going to the wall during lockdown, it hasn’t always been easy for smaller organisations to access the money, and freelancers have had it really rough. According to BBC Radio’s flagship arts program, Front Row, research by the Creative Industries Policy & Evidence Centre suggests that some 38,000 arts freelancers have lost their jobs as a direct result of the pandemic, with the need to find work forcing many of them to quit the industry for good.

The long and the short of it is that only those venues that receive or have received significant amounts of public money can afford to open. That means commercial theatres – such as most of London’s West End – are significantly challenged when it comes to raising the curtain. “Do you open and say, well, at the moment COVID infection rates are well down, and get some performances in and get your show up and running? Or do you hold off in the hope that you will get the benefits of being able to run your show without social distancing [in June]?” was how Lyn Gardner, Associate Editor of The Stage newspaper, put it recently, speaking with the BBC.

A grey re-opening day at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

On Monday I ventured out into central London for Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito, the Royal Opera House’s first fully staged performance in front of a live audience since the pandemic struck, and while Richard Jones’ insightful modern staging was sensitively acted and brilliantly sung, the overall experience was distinctly unsettling. Walking from Westminster to Covent Garden you are struck by the sheer number of closed shops, their doorways seeming to be permanently occupied by the homeless. Despite indoor drinking and dining now being back on the cards, the West End felt like a ghost town. Returning home afterwards it seemed even quieter as my bus sped through streets usually clogged with traffic. A journey that would normally take 40 minutes was done and dusted in 10. With very few tourists and a baked-in fear for many about taking public transport, it may take months before any of that begins to change.

Emily D’Angelo as Sesto and Nicole Chevalier as Vitellia in La Clemenza di Tito at the Royal Opera. Photograph © Clive Barda

Australian audiences will be all too familiar with distancing and compulsory mask wearing, but at the Royal Opera House the regulations felt particularly drastic with the 2,250-seater house reduced to a 40% capacity of just over 500. A one-way system filtered audience members to their seats, and if you were lucky enough to bump into an old acquaintance not seen in over a year, you’d have been lucky to recognise them among the array of face coverings.

Other COVID-safe measures included paperless ticketing, pre-booked food only in bars and restaurants, digital cast sheets and the most ginormous scanner on the way in to check our temperatures. With people forced to sit as singletons or in bubbles – mostly of two – the evening felt more than slightly mournful, and while Covent Garden hadn’t had to reconfigure their seating as many venues have been forced to do, the reconfigured routes inside the building meant many were left wandering, forlornly looking for help.

At the opera, I did see someone braving the glares to de-mask and slurp an interval ice-cream, but many other venues are doing away entirely with breaks in performance, and others are insisting that drinks are pre-ordered on apps with the upside being that your gin and tonic might well be delivered to your seat. Of course, no interval means no bar revenue – another massive challenge to a theatre’s financial viability.

The obligatory temperature check at the Royal Opera House

As for access, contrary to a common talking point in recent months, there’s no sign so far of venues testing on entry or requiring a controversial COVID passport, though some venues may send out a health form for completion along with your digital ticket. And with online bookings only, contact details will be stored in case someone tests positive and there’s a subsequent need to trace.

In the visual arts, major venues in London such as the Tate, National Gallery and the British Museum re-opened on Monday, but with many of them adopting a pre-ordered ticket approach and strict routes through the galleries it looks as if unguided browsing will be out of the question for the time being. In the West End, The Mousetrap, the world’s longest running show and a relatively low-budget production, was among the first to play to a limited house, while at the Harold Pinter Theatre, Walden, a debut play by Amy Berryman in which Gemma Arterton plays a futuristic NASA botanist returning to Earth, proves that someone at least sees there’s life in new drama. This week will see the return of musicals such as Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, Six and a concert version of Les Misérables with bigger beasts like Hamilton waiting a month or so before testing the water.

Everybody’s Talking About Jamie re-opening at the Lyric Theatre in May

And therein lies a problem. Right now, there is considerable uncertainty about when all these restrictions will finally be over. The UK Government’s original route map suggested that the 21st of June would see a return to normality, but with the rapid spread of the so-called “Indian variant” that is sounding increasingly unlikely. Despite the efficiency of the cross-country vaccine roll out, the new strain seems to be multiplying at an alarming rate, especially among the unvaccinated under 35s.

The result is many venues are facing a dangerous financial gamble – do you rehearse and open up now, only to have to close down again in a month? Particularly in the regions many were burnt trying to salvage some of last year’s losses with that guaranteed British cash cow – the Christmas panto – only to face a further disaster when the plug was pulled at the last minute as the country was plunged into another lockdown. So, assuming that it’s full steam ahead, when do you dare to put a house on sale at 100% ticket capacity? So far, I’ve not seen a concert hall or theatre prepared to take that risk.

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