After the acute stresses of 2020, this year has offered a duller kind of pain for the theatre lover: the difficulty of staying enthusiastic and engaged with an artform that seemed perpetually on the edge of disaster. 2021 saw theatres reopen at full capacity, after nearly 18 months out of action, but theatre fans didn’t always rush straight back. Safety fears lingered. And so did something else: a kind of disillusionment or apathy that could be hard to shake. Here, Exeunt’s writers talk about the struggle to stay engaged: and the moments where they felt their love for theatre come rushing back.
Alice Saville: Someone once told me I looked just like a photo of myself as a teenager, “only more tired”. And I think that’s kind of true on a more general psychic level right now. The enthusiasm for theatre is within me still, but it’s furrowed over with layers of pandemic-induced weariness. I just have to dig it out. And stay watchful: careful not to become the cynical, twisted, doom-mongering shadow version of myself that covid worry keeps threatening to turn me into – the one that’s harder on shows because they don’t achieve everything theatre possibly could in one neat package, the one with a fragmented attention span, the one that feels so frustrated with how some theatres treated their staff during the pandemic that everything on stage feels tainted. Fortunately it’s panto season, because taking a crowd of friends (all panto virgins) to Hackney Empire’s Jack and the Beanstalk reactivated something inside me, something child-like and primal. It was so purely magical seeing Clive Rowe’s mega-watt charisma welcome panto newcomers into a topsy-turvy world full of chaos and magic, and to see everyone cast off their adult selves to yell ‘He’s behind you!’ or ‘Keep it simple Simon!’. Suddenly theatre felt like something all-encompassing and welcoming and wonderful, not a niche artform I torment myself by loving. Will I hunger for nuance again? Perhaps, but that can wait til January. It’s very much the season for ‘one step at a time’.
Andy Edwards: While theatres were closed, I fell back in love with cinema – both as a medium for storytelling and as an event in itself (big doors, big seats, big screens – and in Glasgow some pleasantly small prices). Throughout the last two years I’ve often found myself stewing in a soup of two contradictory desires: on the one hand, I want to get outside my front door, and on the other, I want to run away and hide. Cinema offered a place to do both, and to start feeling a bit more like myself again. I’ve not been picky about what I’ve seen, and that’s led to me finding creative inspiration in places I wouldn’t typically expect. In particular, there’s a scene in the ninth instalment of Vin Diesel’s mega-franchise The Fast and The Furious, where someone literally drives a car so fast (and so furiously) that they end up in space. Watching that moment is the most fun I’ve had this year. It was explosive, enormous and gleefully excessive. It got me super excited about stories and thinking about the absurd and wonderful places they can take you to. Seeing Fast and Furious 9 helped me to start writing again, and if my next play has a moment even half as good as that, I’ll be very happy indeed.
Maddy Costa: At the start of 2020 my relationship with theatre was heading for a breakdown, the argument between us getting messy. Theatre claiming to be honest, relevant, authentic; me wanting more truth, more adventure, more surprise. From that perspective if no other, lockdown came as a blessed relief: an opportunity to read of an evening, or watch a film for a change; to stop the frantic scrabble to keep up with the live performance treadmill; to let go the guilt of not seeing enough and disliking too much. As theatres have reopened I’ve changed, I’m seeing even less, but what I’m searching for remains constant: sensual delight, and an encounter with rigorous intelligence, the kind that’s like an oxygen pump to the brain. In The Untethered Joke, a work-in-progress at Camden People’s Theatre from Sue Maclaine and Hannah Ringham, I found both. Hannah swathed in red and orange tissue paper – portrait of a lady on fire – and Sue in a t-shirt belligerantly asking if you want to make something of it, and both of them diving deep into fears that come with ageing, violence against women, anger and vulnerability, with grace and humour and poetry. In the midst of winter doldrums, sharpened by pandemic, it gives me something to look forward to, knowing this show might return.
Tracey Sinclair: I find myself craving sequins. After nearly two years of dressing for no one, my magpie heart aches for sparkles and shine, and I overdress for every occasion. Coming out of 20 months of solo living, I am starved for connection and conversation; the boozy digressions of a face-to-face chat, not the stilted pixels of Zoom. It’s these hungers that are reflected in my theatre going, in the things I find I love most. Most of my favourite shows recently have been small plays in small(ish) theatres – the one-woman coming of age tales Pause and 10 Things to Do in a Small Cumbrian Town at Alphabetti, or Lewis Jobson’s raucously joyful Redcoat at Live. Shows that have felt less performance, more interaction; a sense that if the sets were stripped away and I stepped onto the stage, this could be one of my pals, regaling me with their adventures. Theatre as a friend, welcoming me back.
Frey Kwa Hawking: A friend of mine held a gender reveal party for herself (having been diagnosed with gender dysphoria by an NHS specialist, finally, and thus okayed for hormones), and surprised everyone attending with a performance piece. Costume change and all. She’d recorded the psychiatrist asking her in an insistent Aussie accent how she felt, “gender-wise”, and her own smoothly disingenuous answers. These samples had been mixed into a song, and as it played she mixed a blue cocktail in a giant jar, grimacing and smiling at us, shining an accompanying video with symbols on a projector through the jar, onto the wall, the ceiling. At the climax, she poured a final ingredient in and the cocktail turned pink. We lost our shit. It was pretty strong, it turned out. Worth all the smokers being shepherded in from the back garden. Good to be reminded of how organic performance can be, how much sense it can make and the functions it can fulfil, even amongst your less theatre, very unionist mates. A welcome ambush. I wish I’d had a notebook on me at the time.
Hannah Greenstreet: Real life babies. That’s one of the things criticised in the first scene of Ella Hickson’s The Writer as a tired theatrical trope. Yet there was something captivating about watching four-month-old Adiya Ijaha as baby Lyra in The Book of Dust at the Bridge Theatre, cooing her way through theatrical peril. Add to that beautifully lifelike daemon puppets, a tiny boat and a very good story, and The Book of Dust has all the elements of a magical Christmas show – a theatrical palate cleanser I didn’t know I needed. In the applause at the end of the show, I felt a knot gather in my chest. I realised I have missed maximalism: large casts, backed by a large design budget, the production doing all it can to bring a slightly too complicated story to life on stage. In contrast, Mike Bartlett’s new monologue, Mrs Delgado, strips the theatrical experience back to basics: one actor – the enthralling Ellen Robertson – telling us a story about two neighbours’ responses to lockdown. Bartlett’s rich descriptions brought pictures to my mind, helping me imagine myself into the characters’ street and lives. Theatre as escapism. I’m here for it.