From the Ancient Greeks to Covid-19, when the plague strikes the theatres are shut down. As Boris Johnson explained when the West End closed on 20th March “these are places where people come together…the sad thing is that for now we want to keep people apart.”
Indoor places of entertainment are likely to be the last to reopen. Professional sport will recover more quickly. Most of it happens out of doors. There is big TV money to fall back on and sponsors, especially bookies, anxious to get it up and running.
Museums which have been letting cameras in for lockdown specials – will only have to open their doors again. They are already experienced at keeping crowds down at their blockbuster exhibitions.
Actors and musicians who perform live are going to suffer longest and deepest and they don’t have film or television work to fall back. Recording and production of new video and film material has pretty much ground to a halt. Asked by MPs this week what he plans to offer viewers next spring, ITV’s director of programmes Kevin Lygo replied “they will be watching a repeat of Midsomer Murders”.
The impresario Sir Cameron Mackintosh has no plans to bring his shows back this year. It’s difficult to see how Les Misérables would work without a stage packed with actors and a full house crammed together in the audience.
Performers and theatres have responded as best they can during the coronavirus lock down. They’ve made some of their work available online for free to comfort the public. Poetry recitals, recorded performances and even a National Theatre pub quiz have been put online along with celebrity clowning on Instagram.
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There have been charity concerts. Lady Gaga recruited headliners from Paul McCartney to Taylor swift for the One World: Together at Home virtual concert.
Two acts have stood out in this avalanche of pro bono attention seeking: Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones. Wily veterans who know how to make a contribution and make a statement at the same time.
Nobel Prize Laureate Dylan has been on what has become known as “the Never-Ending Tour” since 1988, playing a ceaseless run of venues big and small. I last saw him perform in a smallish paddock in rural Colorado. Coronavirus has halted his tour bus at last, doubtless only temporarily.
Deprived of live audiences Bob Dylan posted his first new song for six years online at the end of March. Murder Most Foul is a 16 minute and 58 seconds meditation on the assassination of President John F Kennedy in 1963. A few weeks later on 17th April he put up a second, shorter (4’38) new number, I Contain Multitudes. Both songs are sombre, almost spoken in the mellow tones Dylan honed on his radio shows, mixing cultural and historical references. The first title is taken from Shakespeare, the second from the American poet Walt Whitman. Dylan has given his fans enough to mull over to fill the long hours of social isolation.
Dylan hasn’t bothered much with pop videos after, typically, he had made the first one with his 1965 visuals for Subterranean Homesick Blues in the film Don’t Look Back. His use of flashcards with words written on them, has been ripped off by everyone from Richard Curtis in his film Love Actually to Roseena Allin-Khan and Boris Johnson during the recent general election.
“Those bad boys the Rolling Stones”, as Dylan slyly calls them in I Contain Multitudes, have always had a more promiscuous relationship with other aspects of popular culture. Their contribution to Together at Home was pitch perfect, beginning with Mick, Keith, Ronnie and Charlie popping up in the segments of a four-way split-screen just like anyone else in the Zoom chats we are all having to master.
Their choice of song You can’t always get what you want caught the mood of lockdown. There was a chance to peak into the lifestyles of rock gods home alone. Jagger in an elegant retro music room. Keith Richard in a baronial hall he hadn’t quite turned into a sixties bedsit, Ronnie Wood in a room resembling a Miami Beach balcony bar and Charlie Watts nonchalantly tapping away without bothering to get his drum kit out.
The Stones’ Coronavirus offensive didn’t stop there. A few days later they issued Living in a Ghost Town their first new work for years. It reworks the lyrics an unreleased song from last year accompanied by a video made by a 32 year-old Londoner Joe Connor, who has never met the band. From Osaka to Cape Town, but mainly London, it captures the mood of the song and the times as a fisheye lens snakes through deserted lockdown streets.
Having demonstrated that his band is match-fit in Lady Gaga’s concert in contrast to the contributions from those monarchs of British pop Paul McCartney and Elton John, Jagger also took the opportunity of an interview with the modish Apple Music to parry recent barbs aimed in his direction by the Beatle. The difference he said was that the Stones pioneered being “a big concert band” for decades after the Beatles broke up.
For now big concerts and plays in the theatre are just memories. Managers are trying to work out how they can open up again one day. The artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company Greg Doran suggests tickets will be sold for half a theatre’s capacity, leaving parties in the audience free to distance from each other. But that would also halve the box office take, leading inevitably to much higher ticket prices. With audiences perhaps having to have their temperatures taken before being allowed in, actors having physical contact on stage will look even more awkward and anachronistic than dramatic smoking did before the theatres went dark.
Trapped in a very hard place the creative industries are hoping governments can craft targeted packages of support but they know they are likely to be a long way down the priority list. Dylan and the Stones don’t need the money, although many who work with them and at their venues will be in need. At least they’ve both set an example and found ways to show the world that there is life still in the Dinosaurs from the 1960s even in the face of SARS-CoV-2, 2019.