"Angels in America would transpire to be a suitably fitting play to watch just before a global pandemic."twitter.com/adctheatre

Before Life-As-We-Know-It was whipped away by the pandemic, one of the last live theatre performances I saw was a revival of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: Perestroika at the ADC. Accompanying a friend who had read both parts of Kushner’s sweeping two-part examination of the lives of queer New Yorkers at the peak of HIV/AIDS crisis – and was far better informed about the play than me – I was nevertheless excited and intrigued, as I always am before setting foot in a theatre to watch something new. Angels in America would transpire to be a suitably fitting play to watch just before a global pandemic; its pervasive sense of doom now feels especially pertinent. Yet this wasn’t my strongest memory from my last “typical” live theatre experience before the pandemic, in a proscenium arch theatre with the ADC bar downstairs, buzzing with friends and the famous show-themed cocktails. What I still remember most from that night was the atmosphere of the auditorium itself.

“Viewed nostalgically through the rose-tinted glasses which so many of us have been wearing lately, these experiences, which were always special, have taken on a new sanctity”

In every live theatre performance, the atmosphere is always ever so slightly, almost imperceptibly, different. This atmosphere always depends on the audience and venue; even if you saw the same performance twice, the atmosphere would still be different because no two audiences are identical. The few moments of silence in the auditorium before the performance begins are perhaps the only uniform feature of the live theatre experience. It’s this silence which has led me to describe going to the theatre as a religious experience. There’s a rituality to it, irrespective of the audience or venue: we hold our breath before the curtain rises, a sudden chorus of coughs interrupts the silence, and then suddenly silence reigns again until the curtain lifts to reveal the world in which we’re about to lose ourselves. It’s an incomparable thrill.

Then, there’s the rather less dogmatic aspects still integral to any theatre trip. The sounds of other audience members eating their snacks. The snack-eating audience members being told to ‘shhhh’ their noisy munching. The sight of someone poring over the play text whilst watching the performance. The back of your seat being relentlessly pummelled by the impatient feet of a seven year old. The trip to the bar in the interval to talk about the performance with friends – or even strangers – over overpriced drinks. The silences in moments where the audience is so gripped that no one dares to breathe. The applause, sometimes so rapturous that it’s like thunder. Viewed nostalgically through the rose-tinted glasses which so many of us have been wearing lately, these experiences, which were always special, have taken on a new sanctity since ceasing to be part of everyday life.

“...every performance is totally, utterly unique, and this uniqueness has to be treasured for what it is”

In the earlier optimistic days of lockdown 1.0, I attempted to recreate the “live theatre experience”, watching the National Theatre’s weekly streams of past productions on YouTube. Although it was wonderful to watch productions I’d never been able to see before, it just wasn’t quite the same as sitting in the Olivier at the National. I later watched a live-streamed performance of the Old Vic’s Lungs, made all the more gripping by the fact that I knew that I was watching it live, but it still somehow missed the mark. I told myself that all of this “streamed theatre” wasn’t worse, it was just different. Yet, when my appetite for streamed theatre rapidly diminished towards the end of last summer – after months spent watching screens rather than stages – it dawned on me that, whether it made me an “unfaithful” theatre lover or not, I’d stopped enjoying watching theatre.

An empty auditorium at the National Theatre, which has been shut for the majority of the last year.twitter.com/nationaltheatre

This isn’t to say that I no longer enjoy watching live theatre. I’m just tired of streamed theatre. Streamed theatre – although a brilliant tonic for whenever you’re itching to watch something that isn’t a film or a Netflix true-crime documentary – isn’t theatre as we’ve always known it. Yes, streamed theatre has done wonders for widening access; thousands of new theatre fans who may not have otherwise attended the theatre have tuned into free streams of past productions from venues like the National Theatre and the Bristol Old Vic. Yet, streamed theatre has only flourished because “The Real Thing” has been impossible in a pandemic. It should unequivocally not be interpreted as an adequate replacement for live theatre. As Thomas Ostermeier, artistic director of Berlin’s famous Schaubühne, surmised in a recent interview: “livestreamed theatre is like methadone for heroin addicts: you don’t get the same kick as with the real thing.” Theatre is, after all, one of only a handful remaining art forms in our industrialised, technology-driven societies where, for a few hours, we won’t be staring at screens. Translating it to the screen results in the loss of the atmosphere of the theatre, which is at least fifty per cent of the fun. In an art form where every single performance is totally, utterly unique, this uniqueness must be treasured for what it is.


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There’s light at the end of this long tunnel, however, with Rishi Sunak’s £300m “culture recovery fund” and the scheduled reopening of UK theatres on the horizon, although our theatre landscape has been irrevocably – and in some instances irreparably – altered by the pandemic. But despite the losses our fragile ecosystem has endured of late, I still remain hopeful for the moment when I’ll be searching for my seat in an auditorium again, joined by thousands of new theatre fans with whom I’ll be watching – yes! – live theatre and revelling in its incomparable atmosphere. Whatever struggles the theatre industry faces in future, I know for sure that that almost indescribable experience will never be altered.