Features Published 9 September 2021

“Please, please, please wear your mask in the theatre”

An imaginary conversation between two theatregoers at a mostly-maskless West End show.

Alice Saville

Photo by Hamza Nouasria on Unsplash

Excuse me, would you mind putting your mask on?

Uh, Punchdrunk isn’t coming to London until next year sweetie.

No, I mean the other ones – you know, like, a face covering.

What it to you? Are you one of those… Theatre Etiquette people? Please don’t take my sweets, these are emotional support M&Ms!!

No it’s not like that. It’s just that I was really looking forward to coming to the theatre and now I feel a bit… antsy. Like, I’m surrounded by about 900 people, statistically at least 13 of them are going to have covid, and everyone’s just running around with naked faces like a 21st century version of the end of Hair.

Oh. Right. Well, I’m actually double jabbed, and judging by the side partings and greying beards on most of this crowd they probs are too – there’s no need!

Yeah, okay, you’re justified in thinking that! Public health messaging around covid has been somewhere on a scale of misleading to outright mendacious, leaving people as confused as the opening night audience of Starlight Express. Throughout the pandemic, there’s been an understandable-but-unhelpful emphasis on cheap, easy to impose, and largely ineffective measures (hand sanitiser, “enhanced cleaning with hospital grade cleaners”) over expensive, controversial but way more effective ones (social distancing, ventilation, masks).

And then lately, there’s also been the comforting idea that double jabbed people are invincible antibody superheroes. But although vaccines are marvels of science, they’re not everything. Vaccinated people are less likely to end up in hospital, but they can and do get sick with ‘mild’ symptoms that can still be pretty nasty. And they can also spread it to others, including medically vulnerable people, increasing the risk of new variants. Collectively, we’re in a bit of denial about that.

So nice to be reminded how fucked everything is on my lovely night out. But masks don’t even work right? Unless you order an uber-space-engineered-kryptonite-mask that costs £3000 and is stored in a special vacuum-sealed sterilised chamber?

Yeah, they’re not perfect. But they do seem to cut down on transmission, especially when everyone wears them, and it feels worth doing anything we can to protect theatres from future lockdowns of the kind that have hammered the industry over the past 18 months.

But if theatres actually wanted me to wear a mask, there’d be signs, surely? 

Yeah look, this is confusing to me too. But each theatre is currently occupying its own parallel strand of covid reality, reflecting the personal politics of their owners, boards and artistic directors. Some gently ask you to wear masks, others firmly require it, others are just a big ol mosh pit of smiling nude faces. The really fun bit is that it’s almost impossible to work out which you’re gonna get until you’re actually there. And if the messaging from the theatre isn’t clear from the moment people buy tickets, it’s hugely unfair to shift the burden to ushers. Approaching individual theatregoers and asking them to wear masks exposes ushers to a mix of responses from irked to aggy to furious – something that’s well, well above their pay grade. So I guess it’s just up to us to work this one out together.

Yeah, I’m glad you didn’t talk to that guy next to me, despite the “We’ve got magic to do!” t-shirt there’s a slightly mean glint in his eye. But still, how will I make it through Leopoldstadt without liquid refreshment? I cannot be in a theatre without wine. In fact I mainly go to the theatre so I can drink wine, alone, in the dark, and weep softly, away from the judging eyes of society.

Theatres are havens for wine-lovers, and I respect that. But have you considered bringing a straw? Or consolidating your drinking into a focused five minute span, before replacing your hated face covering? Every audience has someone who uses ‘I’m drinking’ as cover not to wear a mask, as they nurse a £9 white wine that warms to vinegar in their sweaty palms.

Look, I’m making excuses. I just want to pretend that pandemic’s over, to mingle germs freely like we did in the heady summer of ’19. Looking at masks, wearing masks, it makes me sad.

Yup, me too, but it’s a small sadness. And potentially, an insurance policy against the greater sadness of any kind of reintroduced restrictions, of the kind already being covertly discussed in the press. We’re in the horrible, familiar predicament where the government is telling us, serpent-like, exactly what we want to hear, but we can’t trust them.

Right now, mask wearing is an “individual choice”, but much like showering before you get in a swimming pool, it’s only effective if everyone does it, otherwise we’re all just bathing in a tepid germ soup.  Frankly, I don’t why we’re chatting – we should be demanding to speak to the manager. West End venues have been hammered by the pandemic: they didn’t get much of a bailout, and they mostly couldn’t afford to open with social distancing. It feels like they should be more invested than anyone in stopping covid from spreading. Instead, it feels like they’re too scared to risk alienating their deep-pocketed, probably “freedom-loving” audiences, or indeed to risk losing out on sales of white wine and those annoyingly empty little drums of flavoured popcorn.

Huh. Maybe I’ll retaliate by designing a mask that drips a steady supply warm prosecco into my mouth, while simultaneously delivering a soothing massage to my under eye region.

Fine. I’ll help market this product, and we’ll use the proceeds to make massive signs with West End hit-inspired slogans like “Cover your face, you big disgrace”, or “And I’m telling you, covid’s not going!”.

Thank you for this considerate and, now I think about it, slightly implausibly polite exchange of views on a politically fraught topic. Let’s celebrate with a warm embrace.

Uh, sure! Maybe put your mask on first? 

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Alice Saville

Alice is editor of Exeunt, as well as working as a freelance arts journalist for publications including Time Out, Fest and Auditorium magazine. Follow her on Twitter @Raddington_B

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