LONDON – Since his death in 1616, William Shakespeare has continued his awesome run. But one of the world’s best known venues for staging his work, the in-the-round replica called Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, warned the British Parliament this week that the coronavirus pandemic might bring down the curtain on the iconic forum – not just for now, but forever.
The Globe has been staging the Bard’s work at its timbered theater on the south bank of the Thames in London since 1997, when the company opened the doors of a meticulous oak wood reproduction of the original Elizabethan playhouse that stood near the same site until it was destroyed by fire in 1613.
Now, the Globe is threatening it won’t survive the year without at least a $7 million injection of cash.
The playhouse – the brainchild of the American actor and director Sam Wanamaker – operates as a pure nonprofit, without any regular government support. It has lived “hand to mouth,” as its artistic director Michelle Terry put it, on guided tours, workshops, weddings, catering and ticket sales for packed performances of Hamlet and Macbeth, until the pandemic shut the playhouse down in March.
Shakespeare’s Globe is just one of many British cultural institutions endangered by a long lockdown. Also struggling are other independent venues, including the Old Vic, the Royal Academy and Royal Albert Hall.
The London Theatre Consortium, which represents 13 venues in the city, told Parliament that their members didn’t see any way to operate with six feet of social distancing, and warned that their stages would not be able to open immediately when a lockdown is lifted (because it takes several months to ready a performance) and that if theaters were repeatedly opened and closed to deal with ensuing waves of infection, they wouldn’t survive economically.
The outlook isn’t much better for the purely commercial theaters in the West End – the Victorian-era jewels that serve as London’s version of New York’s Broadway, staging everything from cutting-edge modern drama to long-running crowd-pleasers like “Les Misérables” and “Mama Mia!”
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has told Brits that the country will ease out of lockdown very slowly – always ready to slam on the brakes if new cases begin to spike. In June, the government hopes to open some schools and retail shops. In July, sit-down restaurants may again be serving meals – as long as the outbreak continues to remain manageable.
Tourism? Not likely in the short run, as the Johnson government has said it will order travelers to quarantine themselves for 14 days upon arrival.
Operators of theater companies, cinemas, opera houses, concert halls and night clubs in Britain assume their large-scale, indoor gathering places may be the last to reopen, perhaps not until the end of the summer. Or later.
The full-scale replica of the open-air Globe, circa 1599, is a sublime place to experience Shakespeare, but a sketchy place to be during a viral outbreak.
During a performance, half the audience sits on rows of hard benches in galleries above “the pit,” where a standing-room-only crowd of “groundlings” watch the play unfold, much as audiences did 400 years ago, shoulder-to-shoulder, often with an ale or a sausage in their hands, close enough to feel the spray from actor’s lips, who must project without the aid of microphones.
Neil Constable, chief executive of the Globe, told The Washington Post it was hard to imagine how strict social-distancing might work in any playhouse, especially one like the Globe.
He said that because the main 1,500-person venue is open to the sky, the Globe’s season runs from April through October, when it generates most of its $30 million in annual revenue.
Constable assumed most or all of the summer season might be lost – and that theaters and many hospitality venues (like pubs) might not really rebound until there is a vaccine.
This week, Parliament’s Committee of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has been taking testimony from cultural institutions struggling with the lockdown.
One group, called the Theatre Trust, worried that the virus had thrown the sector into a downward spiral that would see many venues close.
The chairman of the committee, Conservative Party lawmaker Julian Knight, wrote to the government’s Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden, that “Shakespeare’s Globe is a world-renowned institution and not only part of our national identity, but a leading example of the major contribution the arts make to our economy.”
He said, “For this national treasure to succumb to covid-19 would be a tragedy.”
In their submission to Parliament, the Globe’s directors reminded the panel that “more people engage with us about Shakespeare than anywhere else in the world,” with a million visitors a year.
The Globe management called the shutdown “financially devastating,” and said without emergency funding and the continuation of Britain’s generous Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, which pays 85 percent government subsidizes the salaries of low to middle wage workers, “we will spend down our reserves and become insolvent.”
The BBC recalled in its report on the threat to the Globe that actors Ian McKellen, Christopher Plummer, Judi Dench, Jude Law, Ralph Fiennes and David Tennant had all performed on its stage.
The Globe chief executive said he was confident people will come to Shakespeare – and to British theater. But the theaters have to survive long enough for the doors to open again.