Even on its first night, Sebastian Barry’s powerful piece about the redemptive power of human spirit was living on borrowed time.
Trafalgar Studios, London
The despair at the first night of On Blueberry Hill was all-pervading, if unspoken. It was, however, clear enough on the faces of the celebs who posed for pictures on the red carpet, the punters who sat around me in the auditorium – they included Jeremy Irons and Sinéad Cusack, no less – and, as they took their final bows, the play’s two stars, David Ganly and Niall Buggy.
Of course it had nothing to do with Sebastian Barry’s play, which was a wonderful and powerfully-acted piece about the redemptive power of the human spirit. It should have been an evening of unalloyed triumph and jubilation, but in our hearts we all knew that even on its first night the production was living on borrowed time. Metaphorically and physically, darkness was about to descend on the West End.
Thanks not least to the heroic efforts of Sir Donald Wolfit, Hitler never managed to entirely shut down theatres during the war. A plague last closed them all in 1606 – ending an extraordinary theatrical season that had seen the openings of King Lear, Macbeth and Volpone. In 1642 they were boarded up once again when the Long Parliament took the view that ‘lascivious mirth and levity’ was inappropriate as the Civil War was beginning.
As unavoidable as it may be this time around, the cost of theatres closing is still incalculable for the wider community. How much more they are about than ‘lascivious mirth and levity.’ A few weeks ago, I wrote that theatre has kept me going over the past few miserable years when journalists going off with mental health issues has been all too common. I don’t say I never had a day when I didn’t feel sick of it all, but I could at least always look in my diary and be heartened to see that I had an appointment coming up with, say, Sir Ian McKellen in King Lear or David Suchet in The Price.
I feel like one of the key structural supports to my life has been kicked away. We all draw strength from other people and from community and that is of course what theatre is all about. More people go to the theatre each year than they do to football matches and drama’s part in maintaining the morale of the nation is real and undeniable. Theatres have been the antidote for me to both the internet and our nationalistic politics which have both been about isolating us from other people.
Actors, writers and directors mostly work for a pittance, but it is for them a labour of love. So many industries are now begging for help, but theatre has to my mind as strong a claim as any. It has provided untold billions to the exchequer over the years, but no price can ever be put on what it’s done for our psychological health and extending our emotional literacy. We must do everything we can to ensure our theatres can reopen when it is safe for them to do so. A country that no longer cares for its theatres no longer cares for its soul.