The arts are in trouble, terrible trouble, and there’s no way to sugar coat the plight of those who work in the theatre, in music, in entertainment. Most actors and musicians, even the successful ones, live from gig to gig, from meal to meal. And now there are no gigs and, in the case of hundreds, even thousands, no meals, either. They get paid when they work and, for the foreseeable future, there will be no work. Nearly everybody who works on a show of any kind is freelance, more than 70% of the entire workforce, so, no show, no money. These are the professionals who design, choreograph, build, sew, sweep, conduct, direct, write, keep the lights on, and sell the ice creams in our theatres and cabarets and concert halls.
The theatres and large arts organisations who rely on this army of freelance staff for every aspect of their operations are aware of the jeopardy their support teams are in but they themselves are threatened. Some of the most stable of our arts organisations, from the National Theatre to Shakespeare’s Globe to the Old Vic and beyond, are warning that without a large injection of government money, they may no longer be able to function. This is serious enough but it is hoped that the board members of these companies will come to their rescue, at least long enough for them to get back on their financial feet. The banks, who haven’t distinguished themselves in this current crisis, may at least look somewhat favourably on applications from famous organisations.
The freelancers, though, without the support of banks, or boards, or anyone with deep pockets, are on their own and have nowhere to turn.
Michele Terry, Artistic Director of Shakespeare’s Globe, was on the Today Show this week highlighting the dire situation of her theatre and she was eloquent in her cause. But the individuals who keep her, and all the other, theatres running, do not have similar access to the press and airways. The West End and Broadway producer, Sonia Friedman, wrote this week that she believes 70% of all our performing arts companies will go out of business by the end of the year and will not return. Unless there is a massive injection of government funds, performing arts in Britain stand on the brink of obliteration. Dramatic? Yes of course. We are, after all talking of drama, amongst other arts, but, make no mistake, this is nothing less than the bald and inescapable truth.
There is a move afoot for this vast family of professional arts workers to coalesce and speak collectively to power. The arts organisations for which they work will support them any way they can despite their own woes, but unless there are willing ears to listen in government we face something worse than an uncertain future, we face the certainty of losing what we can never regain, the artistic life of this country.
Shall we talk now about the wonderful things that artists, with the support of all these people, have offered us to make this week brighter online?
Cocktails with the Curator
Do check out the Frick’s Cocktails with a Curator series. Not being much of drinker, even in these parlous times, I can skip the ‘cocktail’ side of it, although each curator does introduce an alcoholic and a non-alcoholic drink they consider appropriate to the painting being discussed. I find these talks fascinating, even without the alcohol, as these art historians, each of them passionate about their subject, each week describe and elucidate just one painting in the Frick collection. This one is about Velasquez who, poor man, was consigned to paint his patron, King Philip 1V of Spain, over and over again. If he wasn’t the ugliest man in Europe, he was certainly the ugliest man in Spain, a fact the wonderful Chief Curator of the Frick, Xavier Salomon, tactfully manages not to mention.
Glyndebourne Tra La
Now that May is here, this girl’s fancy is turning to outdoor opera, particularly in the special and exclusive environment of Glyndebourne. Sadly, it’s closed for the season but we can still enjoy some of its magic, this week starting May 24th with The Marriage of Figaro. Glyndebourne describes this most popular of operas with “Watch Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro. One wedding. One marriage on the rocks. One scheme. One day.” Which is as good a description as I could come up with. This 2012 production stars Vito Priante as Figaro and Linda Teuscher as Susanna and has charm to spare. The director is Michael Grandage who updated the action (and the costumes) to the Swinging Sixties, and the conductor is Robin Ticciati.
Hay Festival Digital May 22-30
The entire literary world – authors, publishers, editors, readers – wait all year for the Hay Festival, the most important book fest in the calendar and this year, of course, it’s happening on line. I could give you a litany of the great writers who will be speaking at the Festival this year but, if I do, I might miss your favourite. This is the major showcase for books and authors worldwide so it makes more sense just to give you the website so you can browse for yourself. Books and book-related merchandise are on sale but you don’t have to buy anything. Just register, registration is simple and free, and you can then tune into any of the sessions that appeal to you.
Shakespeare from Canada
I’ve been watching streams from The Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario. This excellent company is currently streaming their modern dress Timon of Athens. Not my favourite Shakespeare play, this lively contemporary production makes sense and is extremely entertaining. Stratford is also streaming The Tempest with, as is increasingly fashionable, a female Prospero in the experienced Martha Henry, directed by Antoni Cimolino (Stratford’s Artistic Director), and Macbeth, with Ian Lake as Macbeth and Krystin Pellerin as his Lady. Next week, they start streaming Loves Labours Lost, one of the ‘problem’ plays, directed by John Caird. I haven’t seen that yet but I’m looking forward to it.
One Voice - The Greatest Wealth
This is a remarkable series of monologues, originally staged in 2018, celebrating the NHS, which will be streamed by the Old Vic on their website, starting on Thursday at noon. Curated by Lolita Chakrabarti and directed by Adrian Lester. Actors include David Threlfall, Meera Syal, Dervla Kirwan among others and were written by playwrights such as Moira Buffini, Seiriol Davies, and Matilda Ibini, and Chakrabarti herself, and are set out in decades, each monologue representing one ten-year period. At the end of the series, on July 5th, there will be a special performance of a new monologue by Booker Prize-winner, Bernardine Evaristo, for our own decade, the 2020s.
Mahler 3rd Symphony
For Mahler lovers everywhere, here’s a good performance of the 3rd Symphony from the Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonin, with a charming updated introduction from the orchestra’s Principal Tympanist and comments from the conductor and others.
The Wonderland Challenge
The actor, Brad Shaw, locked down for 12 weeks, has persuaded dozens of fellow actors, including many of the most famous and distinguished in the land, to read through Alice in Wonderland, one minute at a time. The results are sometimes surprising, often touching, and always interesting as great actors each manage to put their own personalities and talents into a single minute. The donations go to the NHS charity. Thank you, Brad, this one is terrific.
Jerry Herman Remembered
We haven’t had any show tunes so far this week so this tribute to one of our greatest theatre composers is just the ticket. Jerry Herman died recently, having made us the gift of such shows as Mame , Hello, Dolly!, La Cage aux Folles, and more. This concert was a live event in February this year, just before the theatres Jerry loved so much went dark. It comes from the 92nd Street Y in New York City as part of their wonderful Lyrics and Lyricists series and will be available to stream until May 31st. Songs you love and maybe a few which are not so familiar are sung by a selection of Broadway stars including Cady Huffman, who starred in the original Broadway La Cage aux Folles, won a Tony for The Producers, and directs this show.
Royal National Theatre
This week’s stream on the National Theatre’s YouTube channel includes James Graham’s This House, an excellent play about the inner workings of Parliament. Jeremy Herrin directed a cast including Phil Daniels, Reece Dinsdale, Charles Edwards and Vincent Franklin. I loved this play in the theatre and I’m looking forward to seeing it again.
Le Patin Libre is ice skating, but not as you’ve ever seen it before. An avant garde group of 5 casually dressed dancer/skaters, four men and a woman, perform a 20-minute riff on ice dancing as choreography. These performers are highly skilled and disciplined but what they are doing is about as far distant from conventional competition ice dancing as it’s possible to find and still be on ice. The ice rink is dimly but deliberately lit, there is sound, sound both of their blades on the ice and a composed soundscape but no music. I find this mesmerising but it’s an acquired taste.
The Skin Game
One of the best of the made-for-Zoom plays so far is this one in a rehearsed reading from the Jermyn Street Theatre. A story about real people – the film star Merle Oberon, the legendary plastic surgeon Archibald McIndoe, and a young fighter pilot shot down in the War and hideously disfigured - it concerns beauty and our perception of ourselves through our looks. Tony Cox’s play has an unusual take on insecurity, love and friendship. It stars Skye Hallam as Merle Oberon, Rachel Pickup as her friend Mary Booker, Ian Hallard as MacIndoe, and George Smale as Richard Hillary, the 21-year old airman with whom Oberon had an affaire before passing him onto Mary with whom he lived until his death in another plane crash in 1943. The details, particularly about Merle Oberon, are so extraordinary that they sound like a movie script. As it happens, they’re all true.
Hamilton and One Little Girl
How this one happened I can’t tell you but the upshot was that a little girl called Aubrey, a huge fan of the musical Hamilton, just wanted to hear her favourite song from the show sung by the original Broadway cast. This is what happened.
Ruth Leon is a writer and critic specialising in music and theatre.