Dame Judi Dench has warned that Britain’s theatres may never reopen in her lifetime as entertainment venues face permanent closure after lockdown.
The 85-year-old actress said she ‘can’t imagine Britain without its arts heritage’ as theatres across the UK face an ‘existential risk’ of closure.
Her intervention comes as theatre bosses have warned of a ‘catastrophic collapse’ in the industry if severe restrictions are kept in place after lockdown.
Boris Johnson has said theatres can reopen from July 4, but not for live performances, with social distancing cut from two metres to ‘one metre-plus’.
But in a letter to The Times yesterday, Britain’s 85 leading performing arts organisations including the National Theatre said the Government needs to provide ‘immediate and substantial’ financial support to give theatres any hope of survival.
Speaking with Cathy Newman on Channel 4 News, Dame Judi said: ‘I think that what is so strange is that we imagine that this is a temporary thing – this is happening just now and when the pandemic passes it’s all going to go back to normal.
Dame Judi Dench (pictured, December 2018) has warned that Britain’s theatres may never reopen in her lifetime as entertainment venues face permanent closure after lockdown
The London Coliseum, the largest theatre in London’s West End, is closed along with the rest of London’s theatre district, due to the pandemic (pictured, June 11, 2020)
‘It will, maybe, for some people – it certainly won’t for all of us in the theatre.’
She said: ‘I do think that (the theatres face permanent closure) because if the theatres now close, become dark, I don’t know when we’re going to get them back.
‘You can’t run a theatre, for instance, with people sitting six seats apart. You can’t run a theatre if it’s a quarter full, no.
‘It doesn’t just affect the public, it affects all of us – not just actors, but the crew and the people who make wigs, the people who dress us, the stage doormen, the lighting – every single person, the people in the box office – everyone’s affected by it, and none of us have any security or knowledge to know when it will come back.
‘When you hear that the (Old) Vic is in trouble, and you hear the Nuffield in Southampton is in trouble, and Leicester and Nottingham and Southport – this is what we rely on, and it’s a desperate feeling.
Dame Judi (right, at the Wildlife Ball fundraiser in London, November 2019), 85, made her remarks in an interview with Channel 4 News’ Cathy Newman (left, October 2019)
Dame Judi said: ‘Will they ever reopen again? I don’t know, certainly not in my lifetime’
A general view of a deserted Old Vic Theatre, on June 9, 2020 in London, England
‘Will they ever reopen again? I don’t know, certainly not in my lifetime.’
Yesterday, the chief executive of the Royal Albert Hall warned Ministers they must provide solutions in ‘weeks not months’ to aid the reopening of the creative sector
RAH chief executive Craig Hassall said venues including his own, The Old Vic and Shakespeare’s Globe would be unable to reopen despite the reduced measures.
The RAH is not expected to begin hosting reduced audiences until October at the earliest, while pantomime season is also now in doubt for the UK’s regional theatres.
Mr Hassall said the RAH, in South Kensington, West London, which has been closed since mid-March, had lost around £12million in potential income.
The world-famous Royal Albert Hall in Kensington, West London, remains shut (file picture)
Craig Hassall (left), the chief executive of the Royal Albert Hall, has warned that the Government must provide solutions in ‘weeks not months’ (right, Kate Varah, chief executive of The Old Vic theatre, who has told Sky News that they need ‘urgent’ help)
Describing the effect of the pandemic, he said: ‘It is the most negatively impactful event in the history of the Royal Albert Hall, and for the cultural sector it is devastating and perilous. I cannot exaggerate this.’
The heads of the UK’s leading performing arts organisations called on the public to pressure the Government into helping Britain’s theatres.
A letter to The Times, signed by Dame Margaret Hodge, chair of the Theatre Royal Stratford, and Glenn Earle, chair of the Young Vic – among others – claims: ‘Theatre is a national success story, vital to Britain’s economic prosperity.
‘It attracted 34million last year, employs 300,000 people, promotes tourism and generates huge tax revenues, including VAT of £130million in London alone.
‘Our industry depends on the £1.3billion of annual ticket sales that has now disappeared, with disastrous effects on companies, employees and freelancers.
‘Even with a one metre social distancing rule we could fill only about 25 per cent of our seats, which is not a financially feasible option.
‘Without immediate and substantial support, theatres and performing arts companies will close and tens of thousands of artistic careers will be cut short.’
ADRIAN VINKEN OBE: Our entire industry is facing oblivion
Try to imagine a world without your local theatre: Christmas without panto for the children, or trips to London’s West End. This joyless prospect came a step closer this week as the Prime Minister announced an easing of the lockdown that offered nothing to Britain’s once-booming performing arts sector.
The irony is that – as thousands of workers face redundancy – the Government is allowing theatres to reopen from July 4, providing it is not for the performance of live theatre! At the Theatre Royal, Plymouth – one of Britain’s most successful regional theatres – we have had to let go of our freelancers, and this week we started consulting on laying off 110 people: one-third of our full-time staff.
But the problem is much bigger than any one establishment. The entire performing arts industry is now facing oblivion.
This is not only a human and economic disaster – it is a cultural catastrophe.
The legendary impresario Sir Cameron Mackintosh has been forced to close his productions Hamilton, Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables and Mary Poppins for the rest of the year, with no reopening date set for 2021.
The closed Old Vic theatre in Central London is pictured last Friday as UK theatres remain shut
A file photograph of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London which has been shut since March
As he bitterly complained, ‘desperate pleas’ from the theatre world have gone unheeded and ‘so far there has been no tangible practical support’ from the Government ‘beyond offers to go into debt’.
James Corden and Gary Lineker lament loss of 100 jobs at theatre
A host of celebrities have described as ‘heartbreaking’ the loss of more than 100 jobs at a theatre.
The Theatre Royal in Plymouth, Devon, said the jobs are going as a result of Covid-19 which has seen a 91 per cent drop in income.
The Theatre Royal in Plymouth, Devon
Actor James Corden said: ‘This is utterly heartbreaking.’
Corden was joined by actor Hugh Bonneville, Sue Perkins and presenter Gary Lineker, who branded it ‘tragic’.
Comedian Nish Kumar said: ‘S***, this is such a great venue.’
The theatre is one of the best attended outside London and the entire artistic team are being made redundant.
Boris Johnson and his Chancellor Rishi Sunak need to think hard about what is at stake here. One top forecasting firm projects that revenue from the creative industries will drop by an astonishing £74billion in 2020 thanks to the coronavirus lockdown. More than 400,000 jobs will be lost by year’s end – simply a human tragedy – and the damage doesn’t stop there.
Countless more millions in revenue will be lost to the bars and restaurants that complement theatres and concert halls around the country.
At the Theatre Royal, Plymouth, we earn 91 per cent of our annual turnover and take only a 9 per cent government subsidy. At a stroke, all our income except that small subsidy has been lost. Many regional theatres have a reputation for developing acting and writing talent.
In Plymouth, I gave Michael Sheen his first directing job at our Drum theatre, while David Suchet and Ben Whishaw have also performed there and James Corden, Michael Ball – a Plymouth lad – and Sir Ian McKellen have played our Lyric stage. It is a virtuous circle of British creative talent that now circulates around Hollywood and the globe.
Now all of that is threatened.
South Korea shows us what can be done. It may surprise some to learn that Phantom of the Opera is currently playing in Seoul to packed houses.
Cast and patrons have their temperatures taken and apply sanitising gel. Masks are worn. But people sit side by side, with no social distancing. At the beginning of the reopening, only half those Koreans with booked seats were prepared to attend. But after a dozen or so performances, the figure shot up to above 90 per cent.
This is the sort of bold thinking that will be necessary to save our industry. Large-scale theatres require attendances of 70 to 80 per cent to break even, so social distancing, even at one metre, is a non-starter.
In the immediate term, we need a financial support scheme for the whole sector. But equally important is political leadership. The Prime Minister and his scientific advisers must get behind a new regime that will allow theatres to open again. We need to get back to the business of safely delighting people.
Adrian Vinken is chief executive of the Theatre Royal, Plymouth