It’s over 400 years since a pandemic last shut the theatres in England. In these extraordinary times of the coronavirus RSC Artistic Director Gregory Doran speaks to Herald arts editor Gill Sutherland about the devastating effects of the theatre’s closure, but also of his hopes for the future.
Can you outline the current situation at the RSC?
We’ve looked very hard at the job retention scheme, which is of course vital to our future. Currently we’ve furloughed 90 percent of our staff. We would love to be able to open at the end of the summer if social distancing is relaxed. The Winter’s Tale and The Comedy of Errors are ready to go, but it looks like there really is no way we are going to be able to open before October. The reality is, taking from what the government is saying, it won’t be until from January; and the West End theatres are saying March.
If you can’t open by the autumn, what will the scenario be?
The problem is if the job retention scheme is not extended beyond October, which is what Chancellor Rishi Sunak is currently saying, and we have to pay 40 per cent of salaries. We simply have no income if we don’t open the house. We can’t afford to open a small house – even at 20 per cent capacity as is being suggested at the moment – because the figures don’t add up.
Will you be announcing redundancies?
Not at the moment. We are no doubt in a very vulnerable position, but there are other organisations that are in a much more urgent situation. Our vulnerability depends on timing, if there was no support we would need to reshape the company to operate on a different model and within smaller budgets. Ultimately if that support doesn’t come… some people have called it a bailout, it’s not it’s an investment in a very successful industry to allow us to come back with gusto and be able to do that properly – so it’s a bridging loan.
What we are asking for at the moment is to be able to sustain our workforce through the continuation and development of the job retention scheme. Plus a new package of support for the army of freelances who are self-employed who have been so badly hit.
What about Matilda, any thoughts on when that might reopen?
We can’t predict a reopening in the West End but to get that back up would need recapitalisation of probably £2m. We’ve been very strict and rigorous with our reserves and any money we make from Matilda and Les Misérables has gone into what we call our strategic investment fund and that’s allowed us to do extra stuff like our ‘Live From’ broadcasts. We’ve also got a hardship fund, which was set up in Terry Hands’ day, and that’s being used to try and help out some of our workers.
To many in the Stratford area and beyond, it is inconceivable that the RSC could be in real trouble and that its future could be bleak. How hopeful are you?
I am hopeful because I have to be but the reality is it is a catastrophic result – we simply fell over a cliff in March.
We are incredibly inventive. The education department has been doing incredible work in keeping in touch with the rest of the sector with our regional partners; we’ve got homework help online; sonnets online; and we’re streaming on BritBox, Marquee TV, Culture in Quarantine on the BBC.
The National Theatre’s Rufus Norris said 70 per cent of theatres could be boarded up by Christmas, what’s your take on that?
It’s already happening: the Globe and the Old Vic are in trouble; the Nuffield Southampton has closed. Even though we are big, we are vulnerable. People say ‘oh the RSC will alright’ but that’s not necessarily true. We support a huge workforce of craftspeople, and my fear is once we lose that talent – for example the armourers, costume-makers, dyers, painters and set builders that are in our new costume workshop – you can’t just get them back. That’s my fear.
Investment in the entire industry is needed, and frankly it’s not much money when you think about the return and the global success story that it is – live arts is worth literally billions to the Treasury.
What do you think the impact of some regional theatres going bust will be?
My fear is that the government will keep the flagships and then leave everyone else to look after themselves. Because that’s just not how it works.
I look at my own life – as a teenager I got the theatre bug in Preston going to the Playhouse and the Royal Manchester Exchange. I went to university and drama school at Bristol and saw fantastic work at Old Vic. I started my career In Nottingham, and was in rep at York, Leeds and Harrogate; I ran Keswick for a short season.
Sitting where I now am at the RSC I wouldn’t be here without that huge and now very fragile ecology.
How would you respond to those that say the arts is a luxury and we can’t afford to support it from government coffers when the whole country is in crisis?
Crises are the times when you need the arts! Think what lockdown would be like without the entertainment that you get on TV, radio and online.
To me it’s a misunderstanding to dismiss the arts as a being self-indulgent because it services so many communities. Every town that has a theatre in this country is enriched by its presence, it provides culture and viability.
I went into the theatre for the first time in weeks to do a filmed briefing. After ten weeks of lockdown there was just dust all over the place. I went up to the top of the tower and looked out across the town at all the businesses – hotels, restaurants, bars and B&Bs that are there to capture the tourists who come to the town because of their love of Shakespeare. We are fighting to keep that ecology, but what we can’t do is open before it’s actually financial viable, otherwise we won’t secure our future.
What would your message be to the Stratford people who rely on the RSC for a living?
Be patient with us, we are trying to get back as strongly as we can but this is an unprecedented situation. The fantastic weather has brought visitors back and it is going to be strange not to have the theatre open, but we can’t open because of social distancing. We had an idea of doing something outdoors at The Dell but actually at the moment we couldn’t even think about that because theatre is illegal at the moment. It hasn’t been illegal since 1643!
You must have been thinking about Shakespeare and how he coped with the plague and the theatres shutting, has that been inspiring or helpful in anyway?
It’s been truly extraordinary. When the death rate in the UK reached 33,000 – that was the number of people that died in the 1603 plague, that was out of a population of four million, so devastating. It made me think about the closure of theatres in 1603 – it was not unheard of, they had closed in 1593 and 1594 for intermittent periods. Shakespeare took the time to write Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, so he turned his hand rather successfully to other things.
It made me realise why the plays changed so radically after that closure [of 1603] and the plays suddenly seem to plunge into an abyss – you have dark tragedies: King Lear, Othello and Macbeth.
I had never really contemplated just how insecure the plague must have made everyone – it must have removed people’s sense of certainty and intensified their anxiety. Which is why it’s even more important with this plague that we get the plays back onstage!
Seeing the statue unfreeze at the end of The Winter’s Tale will be like a lifting of that weight.
Tell us about your lockdown.
Tony [Greg’s husband, actor Antony Sher] was performing in Kunene and the King on the Monday night in London and on the Tuesday I thought I have to get back to Stratford if lockdown is happening, especially as Tony is over 70 and in the vulnerable category. I thought I had better pack up the car and get up to Stratford as fast as we could.
We’re very lucky we’ve got the artistic director’s cottage here in Stratford, looking out onto the Welcombe Hills. It’s been a weird sense of being in a little bubble.
There’s been lots of time for contemplation. What lesson would you hope mankind could learn from this current pandemic?
As we approach midsummer I’ve been looking at that play [A Midsummer Night’s Dream] and I think this is the time Shakespeare is talking about, as we move into June. I’ve always thought Titania’s ‘forgeries of jealousy’ speech as Shakespeare’s climate change speech. And it is interesting there’s a sort of appreciation of the world around at the moment. It’s been extraordinary, and people have been talking about how they are noticing the seasons changing; that they had never really stopped and stared for this amount of time before.
I guess what has come out is a sense of kindness, thinking about other people more.
My anxiety has been for the young people. All the drama students robbed of their final show, for example – they should be performing then heading to the bar for a chinwag and to congratulate each other. Instead there’s a great big emotional gap.
From Tony and I’s point of view we’re getting close to what Shakespeare called his ‘chair days’, we can operate remotely.
Stratford’s not quite the same without Shakespeare’s plays being performed, not even on his birthday…
It’s nibbled at my soul that this is the first time that there’s no live Shakespeare in Stratford for such a period; it’s terrible to think that. Even though the Luftwaffe used the theatre as a navigational tool on the way to bomb Coventry, the war went on around us but we carried on.
We’ve got the shows ready to perform; and it’s so important for everyone’s spiritual and emotional health that we do them as soon as we can.