“Why must the show go on?,” Noël Coward famously sang, adding, “Let’s hope we have no worse to plague us / Than two shows a night at Las Vegas.” The coronavirus killed off Coward’s drollery. On March 16, by which time 154 people had died, I rolled up at 7:15 P.M. to the Duke of York’s Theatre, in the West End, to see Coward’s Blithe Spirit—a comedy about death. As I stepped under the marquee, the theater manager blocked me. The show had been canceled, he explained, handing out a press release with his apology. Minutes before, Prime Minister Boris Johnson had urged the public not to attend shows.
One hundred and sixty-nine days later, on September 1, by which time the U.K. body count was 41,545, I stepped back into a British playhouse. In the interim, Britain’s theater industry had been brought to its knees. At a stroke, the collective 34 million paying British customers vanished, and with them $1.65 billion in ticket revenues. Approximately 290,000 theater workers also found themselves instantly in limbo. “The arts are on the brink of ruin,” Nick Hytner, the usually understated artistic director of the Bridge Theatre and former head of the National Theatre, told the BBC. Hytner and the director Sam Mendes, who set up the Theatre Artists Fund with a $636,000 contribution from Netflix, were among the key artists leading the charge for public support, which culminated in July with the government putting up $2 billion to sustain the stalled cultural community.
At a stroke, the collective 34 million paying British customers vanished, and with them $1.65 billion in ticket revenues.
The play that brought me out of rustication was Beat the Devil (running until October 31), a 50-minute self-described “Covid Monologue” by David Hare, performed by Ralph Fiennes—two darlings of the boulevard. The theater was also offering a season of monologue evenings, including a starry collection of A-team actors (Kristin Scott Thomas, Lesley Manville, Maxine Peake, Imelda Staunton) in double bills of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads. As I walked along the Thames embankment, with the reflection of the picturesque, Victorian Tower Bridge ricocheting off the glass cladding of the modern apartments surrounding it, there seemed a certain irony to the occasion. The Bridge was mounting this skeleton-crew event in order to survive the coronavirus, the audience was attending it in order to survive the coronavirus, and the play itself was about surviving the coronavirus.
At the prescribed arrival time on my e-mailed ticket, I entered the theater; instead of walking under a marque, I stood under an electronic eye, which took my temperature. After dowsing my hands with sanitizer and adjusting the mask I’d undertook to wear at all times as part of the price of a ticket, I followed the white arrows of the one-way traffic system through the spacious lobby area to the stalls, wondering as I walked whether theater and theatergoing had changed perhaps forever.
Unlike all West End theaters, the Bridge, which opened for business in 2017 under Hytner’s expert management, has an adjustable performing space. Social distancing meant that, of its 900 seats, only 250 could be sold, and those seats had been re-arranged into bubbles of twos and threes. The spectators dangled in the vastness like scanty ornaments on a Christmas tree.
If the spiritual emaciation of lockdown needed a metaphor, the skeleton seating plan was it.
Shepherded early into their seats to avoid crowding, masked and appropriately distanced, the paying customers awaited the longed-for communal experience whose architecture now seemed to make that focused connection to the stage and to each other problematic. Wariness had entered the arena. Nervous of gatherings, spooked by coughs, eyeglasses fogged by masks, breathing more difficult, the audience was now necessarily self-conscious and tense, making the suspension of disbelief—that sweet collective surrender to the stage world—all the harder.
The Bridge was mounting this skeleton-crew event in order to survive the coronavirus, the audience was attending it in order to survive the coronavirus, and the play itself was about surviving the coronavirus.
I took my seat, comfortable in my isolation but aware of the distance between myself and others. As I waited for the show to begin, my mind wandered back to a specific moment in 1962 when I stood in the wings of Broadway’s Music Box Theatre, watching my father, Bert Lahr, slay an audience of 1,500 in S. J. Perelman’s The Beauty Part. It was a rollicking show; at one point, Dad got a laugh on a conjunction. When he came offstage, I asked him how he knew there was a laugh there. “I listened to the audience, and they told me where the joke was,” he said.
Theater is about presence—not just the presence of the actors but the presence of the audience: it’s a force field. To be good, each needs the agency of the other. The reciprocity of energies is theater’s thrill, and its freedom. On-screen, no audience changes a performance; onstage, every audience does. From the Greek amphitheaters up to the present prosceniums, audiences have sat shoulder to shoulder in theater’s unique exercise in collective thought. The new seating arrangements, which necessarily turned the auditorium into pockets of dead space—a sort of spatial Swiss cheese—skewed the chemistry of the shared enterprise. For the immediate future, theater’s psychological model, not just its business one, seemed up for grabs.
Nonetheless, when the trim, stalwart Ralph Fiennes walked purposefully out from behind a triptych of screens toward a desk set center stage to pour himself a glass of water, there was no denying the sense of exhilaration. “I’m waking and I’m trying to wash the taste of sewage from my mouth,” Fiennes confided. The well-aimed first sentence takes the audience immediately into Hare’s bedroom, but without Hare, a fact which is both fortunate for the recuperating author and for the audience. Fiennes exudes Hare’s sharp intelligence, but none of his glib self-regard. He brings a star’s extra candlepower, that come-hither thing, which by his own admission Hare lacks. “I have a very, very good relationship with 10 percent of the audience,” Hare has said. Almost immediately, radiating a combination of modesty and sinew, Fiennes has 100 percent of the audience with him. His very specific gravity makes him a good messenger for Hare’s nervy blues; he hits the high notes of Hare’s sardonic wit while muting the superciliousness and self-pity underneath it.
Fiennes exudes Hare’s sharp intelligence, but none of his glib self-regard.
Pain stops thought. “Everyone had banal feelings,” Camus wrote in The Plague, of his fictional virus’s first surge, “where no one among us experienced any great feelings anymore.” The same numbness appears to be prophetically true of our real plague. To find new words for pain is part of the reason the paying customers have gathered to hear Beat the Devil, which is not so much a play as a compelling after-dinner talk.
“Covid-19 seems to be a sort of dirty bomb, thrown into the body to cause havoc,” Fiennes says, in Hare’s most memorable line. Hare deploys most of his impressive word horde to describe the havoc but not parse the pain. As an unwitting incarnation of the struggle to name pain, Beat the Devil is fascinating. Hare sweats (“not a puddle but a lake”); he vomits (“six times daily”); he’s gaunt and exhausted (“I’m the color of Bela Lugosi”); he shakes (“with Arctic cold”). He notices “the blizzard of cliché which is fogging up my television”; but, curiously, he can’t seem to hear the verbal dry wash on which he falls back to describe his own profound near-death experience. “But again, am I dying?,” Fiennes says, at one point, which is about as close as Hare comes on this night to dissecting his own fears of mortality.
Beat the Devil is best when registering Hare’s bewilderment at the caprice of the “undead, unloving blobs,” as Arundhati Roy has called the coronavirus, which are knocking around inside of him. “I don’t know from day to day what to expect,” Hare says of the ailment, which behaves like some kind of viral knuckleball. “What the hell is going on?,” Fiennes asks, moving around the desk and buttonholing the audience in blue-eyed befuddlement. “People who should look ill are looking fine, and nobody understands why. There’s no correlation between oxygen saturation and how much oxygen is reaching the vital organs.” He adds, “What the fuck?” The not-knowing drives Hare crazy. “One day it’s conjunctivitis. Next it’s diarrhea. Then it’s coughing. Then it’s friendly herpes,” Fiennes says.
Here, as Hare did in Via Dolorosa (1998), where he equated his own birth with the birth of Israel, the playwright performs the incidentally hilarious psychic jujitsu of equating his body with the body politic. “Just as my illness enters its mad phase, so does the Conservative government,” he says at one point, adding elsewhere, “Am I any more off my head than a government which can’t admit that they are dispatching frontline staff into work with covid-infected patients without suitable protective clothing … ?” Hare does high dudgeon well. “I don’t have survivor guilt; I have survivor rage,” Fiennes says, his beaming percolating disdain.
“One day it’s conjunctivitis. Next it’s diarrhea. Then it’s coughing. Then it’s friendly herpes,” Fiennes says.
Hare gets a lot of fun out of his fury, which also serves him as some kind of antidepressant. He walks the audience amusingly down the “bullshit highway” of government double-talk where “challenge” is code for “mistake,” “ramping up” for “forgot to do,” and “Follow the science” for “Don’t blame us.”
On the subject of the current Conservative government’s vaunted admiration for the N.H.S. nurses, Hare kicks ass and takes names. He reminds us of June 2017, when Johnson (now prime minister), Priti Patel (now home secretary), and Matt Hancock (now secretary of state for health and social care) celebrated when the House of Commons voted down increasing a 1 percent pay raise for the nurses. “If I weren’t gagging anyway, I’d gag,” Fiennes says.
Afterward, I walked out into the summer night, pleased to be back on the aisle, pleased that the evening had been lively and thought-provoking, and strangely pleased for Hare, who seems to have undergone some kind of internal climate change. “I’m so glad to be alive that I wake up every morning wanting to thank the universe for continuing to host me,” he says toward the finale, adding, “Unexpectedly my character now allows me to say things like, ‘This is a beautiful glass of water.’” Hare’s new humility and wonder give the monologue a piquant, extra-happy ending. Not only has Hare beaten the coronavirus, but he seems to have found gratitude. He’s off the Boo Hoo train, which is another reason for him, and for us, to be grateful.
Whether theater will have such a quick and joyous resurrection remains to be seen.
John Lahr is a columnist for Air Mail