As the curtains rise again, the theater should be very different
“FOR LAST the words of the year belong to the language of last year, “wrote TS Eliot in” Four Quartets “. “And next year’s words await another voice.” Ralph Fiennes delivers these lines on a stage furnished with only a table and two chairs; light effects, fiery red sunsets from a bombardment, shine behind him. At the Theater Royal in Bath, a 200-year-old performance hall that Jane Austen knew, Mr Fiennes marked the emergence of the theater of pandemic hibernation with a 75-minute solo performance of Eliot’s long poem, a meditation in four parts on time, change, destiny and faith.
It’s a good starting point for the theater’s post-covid journey. “Four Quartets” struggles not only with Eliot’s personal crises of faith and identity, but also with the public emergency of World War II; he composed three of the four pieces between 1939 and 1942. Mr. Fiennes has known the poem since his childhood, but revisited it during confinement, finding that it resonated with the disturbed times, in which “all the infrastructures and expectations normal are deleted “. Colleagues who helped put the show on the road “volunteered how contemporary it was – the sense of reckoning with oneself and with life and soul.”
Restless presence and barefoot on stage, Mr. Fiennes discusses, discusses, reflects or jokes, expressing Eliot’s magnificent images and complex ideas not as a sermon but as a dialogue with an audience that has shared a passage through the loss and bewilderment. The first quartet, “Burnt Norton”, invites them to “Descend lower … In the world of perpetual loneliness … Inner darkness, deprivation”, an experience that the pandemic has trivialized. Tinged with Buddhist and Hindu as well as Christian mysticism, “Four Quartets” suggests that there is no turning back, no resuming the status quo. As Eliot puts it in “The Dry Salvages”, the third quartet, “time does not heal: the patient is no longer there”.
Mr. Fiennes’s one-man show, which opened last month, is reminiscent of the monologues and sleek productions that aired online or on television to keep the flame of drama flickering when theaters emptied and that social distancing prevailed on stage as well as in the stands. But his progression across the country – he’s touring several other English towns over the summer – marks a turning point from private fellowship to public spectacle. Operating with a limited audience since mid-May, UK cinemas hope to regain full capacity soon. As they and American theaters gradually come out of closures, many pros share Eliot’s insistence in “Little Gidding,” the latest quartet, that: “We can’t revive the old factions / We can’t not restore old policies / Or follow an ancient drum. “
At my beginning is my end
The pandemic has been devastating for theaters. In Great Britain, the search for UK The theater and the Society of London Theater, two industry bodies, say the industry suffered around £ 200million ($ 282million) in covid-related losses as of March 2021. A quarter of the theater’s self-employed workers ceased their activities. As Julian Bird, the director general of the two bodies, observes, covid-19 has shone the spotlight on the fragility of the human infrastructure of the tragedy. The buildings themselves are worthless, he says. “We have absolutely vividly realized that the theater is nothing without its workforce.” The recovery of designers and technicians forced into other trades will be essential.
New York theaters have been allowed to open without capacity limits since May 19. So far, only the small venues outside of Broadway have come back to life. Broadway scenes will remain mostly dark at least until mid-September, although “Hadestown” – a musical update to the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, and therefore another journey through purgatory – should resurface sooner. And the Public Theater will return to its open-air home in Central Park, the Delacorte Theater, on July 6 with a version of Shakespeare’s “Merry Wives of Windsor” set in the West African community of Harlem.
This production reflects a new social consciousness in theaters on both sides of the Atlantic. At a recent symposium on the Future of Theater, Public Theater Artistic Director Oskar Eustis urged his peers, “Don’t come back, come back more democratic, come back more inclusive. Nataki Garrett, artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, confirmed, “Normal ended in March 2020. We’re not going back to anything. Sharpened by protests over the forced layoff of the theater, race issues will take center stage, on and off stage. Among other recommendations, We See You, White American Theater, a lobby group, wants at least half of the plays performed on major stages to be by non-white writers.
Along with politics, however, many theatergoers will yearn for an escape while singing and dancing. As Eliot wrote in one of the best-known passages of “Four Quartets”, “mankind / cannot stand much reality”. In addition to “Hadestown”, old-fashioned big-ticket shows set to make a comeback include Cole Porter’s musical “Anything Goes”, set to open at the Barbican Center in London.
Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein responded to a similar desire for spectacle and flamboyance after WWII. The circumstances today are different, especially when it comes to the impact of social distancing on the counters. This can put big budget extravagance beyond the reach of many sites struggling to break out of foreclosure. Thus, certain innovations induced by the pandemic are bound to last and evolve.
Small group and solo works, such as Mr. Fiennes’ own interpretation of David Hare’s monologue on his covid contact, “Beat the Devil” are among them. New outdoor sites, a response to ventilation needs, are another. The Arcola Theater in London, for example, built an open but canopied auditorium reminiscent of the semi-covered theaters of Shakespeare’s time. Then there are immersive high-tech projects like the adaptation of José Samarago’s novel “Blindness” produced by both Donmar Warehouse in London and Daryl Roth Theater in New York. Instead of looking at the actors, the audience wears headphones and learns about the story through lighting and audio recordings.
“We eat the fruits of last season”, writes Eliot in “Four Quartets”. “And the satiated beast will kick the empty bucket.” As M. Fiennes notes, the poem is a call to free oneself from the past and the future, to escape the cycle of “sequential time” and “to live the present moment”. At best, it’s one of the theatrical’s giveaways, because hopefully audiences will rediscover it when the curtains come up again. ■
This article appeared in the Books & Arts section of the print edition under the title “Le monde qui tourn”