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Can a play succeed without its audience?

It isn’t far-fetched to say that all of us, in one way or another, have been carried through the lockdowns by our favourite forms of art. Whether it has been music, films, or television shows, they have distracted us considerably. And after the initial shock of cancellations and disruptions to live shows in early 2020, which continue to drag rescheduled dates far into 2021 and 2022, theatre is amongst the types of events that have been able to adapt to the circumstances, despite the traditionality of requiring an in-person audience to properly work.


One such example is Lolita Chakrabarti’s Hymn; it was supposed to be shown at the Almeida Theatre in front of a socially distanced audience but was then, instead, streamed live to online viewers and will now be available on-demand between the third and ninth of March. Performed by a two-person cast of Adrian Lester and Danny Sapani, it portrays the intimacy and vulnerabilities involved in a platonic friendship between men. Although most reviews of the play have been incredibly positive, a few have been dampened not by particular faults in the play itself, but by lamentations over the fact we cannot experience the play as a live audience. One writer for the BBC went so far as to describe the play as ‘the dullest [he had] ever attended’ only because he had viewed it alone in his office on a computer.


Nobody is disputing that a play is better seen in person, when you’re seated metres away from the actors, peering at them from the shadows, and letting out a huff of relief or tension as the curtains fall for the interval and you can pop off to get a tub of ice-cream. I personally miss the feeling of being a part of the atmosphere, the human sound effects that attend fraught scenes. I miss the lights coming on at the end, bringing me back to reality when I’ve often been left with a feeling of emptiness or longing as I’ve been immersed in the lives of fictional characters. I miss being able to turn to my friends and laugh off the feeling. And I imagine that actors miss seeing an audience, too. They can measure the success or failure of their performance that day through us.


The uniqueness of theatre is brought about by the audience: we all sit as a collective group and observe the play together as it happens in real time, a story that has been brought to life in a space we have been invited into. What separates us from the actors is only the boundaries between fiction and real life. Now, social restrictions caused by a pandemic are what separates us from the actors. And it does make a difference. Historically speaking, a performance and its audience have always come hand-in-hand; the actors have needed the audience as much as the audience has needed the entertainment. This may be the first time in history that spectators have been truly disconnected by the limits of digital streaming from a performance that is intended to work face-to-face.


I admit that immersive and interactive theatre shows, which completely rely on the presence of the audience to be brought into the performance space and become directly involved in the storytelling, cannot happen as they did pre-pandemic. Even if they could succeed in overcoming the difficulties of digital interaction, it wouldn’t be the same. However, stage plays that don’t necessarily need audience participation are more capable of withstanding the change from in-person shows to digital streaming. It is we, the audience, who should also adapt to the change. If we can tolerate sitting stiff to watch a film, or to marathon a television show, or to watch live sporting event like a football match (which is also notably lacking its vital audience for atmospheric effect), we can certainly sit through a theatre production.


Theatre knows that a play without an audience has altered dynamics. They could cancel, reschedule, or wait out the pandemic until we can see the light at the end of the tunnel- a tunnel that still has no determined end. Instead, they have made the braver decision of taking a risk and pushing forward with production. Instead of complaining and tarnishing the success of a play with our frustrations of being locked away at home, we should support theatre and celebrate their refusal to succumb to the adversity of losing us. Hymn doesn’t deserve to bear the weight of our annoyance from being in lockdown and not having the live experience. We have to bear in mind that theatre will come back stronger than ever when this is over. But if we decide not to bother with the digital streaming of plays until we can form a physical audience, we could be missing out on some amazing stories, including Hymn.

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