Tuesday 17 March 2020
Of all the noteworthy events in my life caused by the Virus so far, one of the hardest to bear has been the sudden closure of our theatre. Sounds petty compared to losing lives, but let me explain. Regular readers will know that we live in the Malvern Hills, a short walk from the pretty Victorian spa resort of Great Malvern. We’re blessed with an unusually large theatre and cinema complex for a small town, attracting audiences from all over the region.
This morning I rang the Malvern Theatres box office to sort out a minor problem with my account, which was efficiently and pleasantly dealt with, as ever. Then I was told, very matter-of-fact, that our two theatres and cinema, and presumably the associated restaurant and bar, had closed this morning. Somehow this feels like a death knell of sorts.
I know, I know. We’re only at the beginning of this thing, much worse is to come, and we have no notion how long it will be till we get our normal lives back. In the grand sweep of history, the temporary closure of a regional theatre hardly counts, does it, compared to human lives and livelihoods?
So why do I feel so upset? Not just because we’re going to miss taking our tiny grandson to his first ever theatrical treat, Wind in the Willows, at the cosy little Coachhouse. Not just because we won’t now hear the magnificent world-class City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra play Beethoven and Sibelius in the Forum Theatre in April.
Not even because this is the first time Malvern has lost its cultural hub. In fact our theatres here have had several closures since the first Malvern arts centre was opened by local resident and Swedish Nightingale Jenny Lind, in 1885. The stage lights went down during World War 11, and a couple of times since when major renovations have taken place. The theatre has always come back, bigger and better. This is, after all, the home of the Malvern Festival, patronised by George Bernard Shaw and Edward Elgar in the Twenties and Thirties. In 1965 after a major build, JB Priestley re-opened the theatre. I’m hopeful our Malvern theatres will survive this threat too, although how is not yet clear. I’ve seen no word as yet come from our Government about supporting the arts through coronavirus.
I think the reason I’m struggling with this bad news so much is that it underlines the fragility of human culture. This Virus will undoubtedly make many people ill, and kill some of our most vulnerable neighbours before it’s done with us. The death-toll could be worse than anything seen in my life-time, especially in developing countries and among poor communities. But I fear the cost to our human civilisation could be massive, too.
Here in the UK, the lights are likely to go out in all our theatres, our concert halls, our venues for all kinds of performing arts, everything from youth clubs and pub gigs to the RSC Stratford, to Birmingham Symphony Hall, to the O2 Arena. A whole generation of actors, dancers, musicians, comedians – people whose careers have always been sporadic and often desperately difficult to keep financially viable – where are these people to go, what are they to do while the Virus keeps us all locked away? Some of them will never tread the boards again, I fear. On top of the effects of austerity and Brexit, some of these venues will not be able to re-open. Not unless we all want it, and do something to help.
This Virus, this attack by a senseless enemy that we didn’t predict, and can’t control, is changing our lives by the minute. Just in the past few days, I’ve heard from from my niece in Australia, who thought she had coronavirus and spent many hours unable to breathe properly, being sent from pillar to post before finally getting medical attention in Brisbane. In her case it turned out to be flu, but it has to be said she hasn’t been tested, so who knows for sure? Then there’s the friend much nearer home, who texted to tell me she felt unwell, went on to develop a fever and cough, and self-isolated as instructed. She is now recovering, but is terribly worried about what she may have passed on to her husband, recently operated on for cancer. She hasn’t been able to get a test either. Plus my son and ex-husband, three days into a trip to India, who had to be repatriated back to the UK before they’d even got over the jet lag of the initial flight. And our two pregnant daughters-in-law, told one minute that they were under no extra threat, only to be told days later that they would need to stay at home for twelve weeks. And the long long list of social events cancelled, meetings of clubs, friends, sports associations, all part of the essential glue of life, all put on hold for weeks, months, how long?
All of you reading this will have similar stories; please do share them in comments if you would like to. But I have a plea, something special to ask of you that will help just a little to keep our human spirits alive until we can come back out from under our rocks. Until we get our civilisation back: please, as well as doing the essential and obvious kindnesses, like adding tinned food to the food bank basket when you shop; as well as calling on neighbours and Skyping lonely friends and family; as well as volunteering in care homes and schools; please, please, if you hold cancelled tickets to performances of any kind, donate the ticket money back to the staging organisation. They’ll be immensely grateful, and your generosity could mean the revival of artists and cultural organisations we could otherwise lose.
Don’t let this Virus win.