Tim Walker on how online is not what theatre should ever be about.
The great theatre impresario Bill Kenwright used to get cross with critics who, having requested two tickets for an opening night, showed up on their tod.
On such occasions, he took empty seats as an insult and understandably so.
I thought about that when I saw the pictures being tweeted by the Chichester Festival Theatre of their socially-distanced audience watching previews of Crave.
It was supposed to cheer us all up that the show was going on, no matter what.
The empty seats just made me feel sad.
Theatre is supposed to make an audience find common cause and kinship.
This motley group of punters in masks, sitting well apart from each other, just looked wary, isolated and lonely.
I felt lonelier still when I sat down to review the show online.
I used, of course, to moan about the tall bloke who sat in front of me and the rustling sweet wrappers, but I realise now it was good for the soul to be sitting in a packed house and feeling part of something so much bigger than myself.
There will never be any more jokes from me about the roar of the greasepaint and the smell of the crowd.
I could, of course, have gone in person – the opening night was a few days before lockdown – but I’ve relatives who are classified as vulnerable and it seemed to be prudent to practice safe play-going.
The theatre didn’t want any of us downloading the play at our convenience but wanted us to see it live so we could in principle share the experience in our respective homes.
Chichester normally has its season in the summer, when so much of the fun is about gins and tonics on its lawn in the evening sunshine among friends.
There’s none of that stuck in front of a computer on a wintry night.
The play by Sarah Kane is supposed to be a meditation on the meaning of love.
The director Tinuke Craig, with her designer Alex Lowde, stages it in a modern, voguish sort of way with the four principals – Jonathan Slinger, Wendy Kweh, Alfred Enoch and Erin Doherty – addressing the audience from what look like long bowling alleys.
Plays that are written for theatres are intrinsically handicapped by being staged on a computer screen.
The decision to bathe the stage in darkness must have made it very atmospheric for those who attended in person.
It made it rather hard for those of us who watched at home to get much a handle on it or occasionally to make out what was happening.
There is a difference, too, of course between stage acting and film acting. On screen, the players seemed sometimes to be over-doing it.
If I’d been watching it in person, I’m sure I’d have felt they’d judged it about right.
The piece consists of a series of disjointed statements and the f*** word is frequently deployed.
Again, seeing it in person, this would probably have been impactful. On screen, it seemed only mystifying and pretentious.
Still, all of this seems mean-spirited and petty when the achievement was that they got the play on at all.
Over the past few weeks there had been a series of plucky announcements from theatres all over the country about new productions opening.
The government’s bungled announcement of a second lockdown resulted in a series of further announcements, saying they’d either been abandoned or postponed.
It felt like the scene in the film Battle of Britain where the Spitfires were blown to pieces by the enemy while still on the ground.
Needless to say, after the new restrictions came into force, the theatre had no choice but to stage the play purely online.
There are those who say that when and if things ever get back to normal, online theatre should continue.
To them I say simply, get stuffed. Online is not what theatre should ever be about.
- Crave is airing at Chichester Festival Theatre until November 7 via streaming.