Who would have imagined six months ago that Broadway and the West End would be shuttered, leaving Seoul to stage the largest live musicals?
South Korea has managed the nigh impossible: to consistently suppress virus transmission, preventing a second wave, and to keep large-scale commercial productions such as Phantom of the Opera and Rent running at near capacity.
The nation mandates stringent precautions for performers, crew and audiences. Everyone must be masked unless they are onstage and the whole audience is temperature-checked on entry.
Equally important, South Korea boasts an astonishingly efficient test-and-trace system.
As Australian soprano Claire Lyon, who plays Christine in Phantom, told the ABC last month, after a cast member tested positive for COVID-19, the entire company was tested inside eight hours and able to retake the stage following a two-week quarantine period.
Phantom plays until August 7 and will later tour Taiwan. Australian musical theatre performers remain in demand in Seoul: The Age understands a small group arrived there last week, joining the international cast of Cats, scheduled to open on September 9.
Like Australia, Japan has had relative success in containing coronavirus, but July has brought a second wave. Theatre has played an unfortunate role. The Japan Times reported last week at least 37 cases (including 16 actors, 5 staffers and 21 theatregoers) linked to Shinjuku’s Theatre Moliere.
The outbreak came while the 190-seat theatre was staging a six-night run of Werewolf, a play starring up-and-coming Japanese boy-band members. Authorities have urged 800 attendees to get tested.
Discretion has been left to theatres by Shinzo Abe’s public health approach, and one major kabuki theatre in Tokyo — Kabukiza, closed since March — plans to reopen in August. COVID-19 safety measures will include all actors and staff being replaced after each show, social distancing and ventilation procedures.
Although mask-wearing isn’t mentioned because it is de rigueur in Japan, audiences will be asked not to shout the names of famous actors — a commonplace occurrence among kabuki enthusiasts — at performances.
THE UNITED STATES
The disastrous trajectory of COVID-19 in the US has wreaked havoc on the performing arts. The Broadway League announced in late June that all shows will be cancelled until 2021 in what was already the longest shutdown of New York’s famed theatre district.
Across the nation, large venues and festivals — including outdoor events such as Shakespeare in the Park — have cancelled programs or been reduced to streaming. The New York Times reports that even a Utah production of To Kill A Mockingbird — set to feature masked actors — was cancelled after a surge in infections, although fringe novelties remain: regional theatre with audiences in cars, or a Florida dinner theatre show where Cinderella and her prince bump elbows rather than kissing.
It remains slim pickings and a grim outlook for the nation hardest hit by the pandemic.
THE UNITED KINGDOM
What about London’s West End? The UK government has announced theatres can reopen from the start of August with one-metre social distancing; the reality is many will not.
The Society of London Theatre, representing West End venues, said it would not be “practical or economically viable” for most theatres to operate at such reduced capacity.
“Theatre can’t work with social distancing,” Andrew Lloyd Webber has scoffed. “It just can’t.”
Lloyd Webber is trialling South Korea’s stringent protocols and technology at the 2300-seat Palladium: thermal imaging cameras, contactless thermometers, disinfectant fogging machines and silver ion self-cleaning door handles. Whether they’ll be safe and effective in a country yet to achieve manageable levels of infection remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, British theatre has an enviable digital archive of productions streaming globally. And the the world’s longest-running show, Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap (which ran continuously from 1953 until the pandemic struck) plans to reopen, socially distanced, at St Martins Theatre on October 23.
The world-renowned Avignon Festival, centred on the city’s medieval gothic Palais de Papes, would have been held next month. With close to 1000 shows in the “in” festival, and around 1500 in the “off”, its cancellation has been a blow, but has not stopped diehard theatre artists mustering 50 shows in venues around the city.
“Not the usual hustle and bustle,” as Le Parisien reported Friday, “but enough rhythm to stay alive.” Interestingly, a further 15 fringe productions from the “off” have migrated for the first time to the nation’s capital.
Another fringe move into the limelight is happening in Germany.
In a country that regularly subsidises around 70 per cent of its theatre companies’ budgets, aiming to “protect culture from market forces”, and enshrining artistic freedom in its constitution, theatre is well placed to survive the pandemic intact, even if social distancing persists.
But in a situation familiar to Australia, recent outbreaks have led to differing restrictions in different states.
Berlin is still adjusting to a new normal, with a modified outdoor production of Brecht’s wild early play Baal at the Berliner Ensemble in June, and a solo version of Peer Gynt at the Schaubühne.
In more relaxed Munich, Susanne Kennedy and Markus Selg’s Oracle — an immersive theatre experience originally intended for small groups — has made an avant-garde virtue of necessity. According to theatre critic AJ Goldman, masked spectators are now led individually through a futuristic dreamscape, where actors behind face-shields lip-synch to robotic voice recordings.
Finally, Greece, spiritual home of European drama, has handled the pandemic admirably. It also has weather and outdoor venues on its side, allowing the All of Greece, One Culture festival, running until September 15, to proceed with social distancing.
Last weekend, Georgian mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili gave a recital with a national orchestra including select arias from Verdi, Gounod and Meyerbeer in the ruins of the Roman Agora, nestled beneath the Acropolis in Athens.
The performance was given to a few hundred health professionals at the frontline of the country’s coronavirus response. It kicks off a program of 111 events at ancient sites across the country, from the stadium of Olympia to the amphitheatre at Epidaurus.