An audience sits. The lights dim. There is a respectful silence as bated breath awaits for the start of a magical journey into the human experience. The performance commences.

And you are immediately interrupted by the sound of your housemate turning on loud pop music in the other room.

This is the world of the theatre in a Covid lockdown.

No matter how much we try to emulate the sacred spaces of a live theatre auditorium in our slice of self-isolated lockdown in 2020, the year of the pandemic, we are unable to achieve that similar sensory deprivation that helps to fully engage a collective audience in the world of fiction that is presented in a regular theatre. The world is just too noisy. Too demanding of our attention.

When given the chance to watch a streaming of The Old Vic’s Endgame starring Alan Cumming and Daniel Radcliffe, the £10 ticket that I paid for didn’t quite cover the loss of something deep and special that no 4K plasma TV and fast-connecting ethernet cabling could replicate.

Wherever one looks through history, every society seems to share a similarity in dedicating a space to the entertainment of the population. Ancient Greeks, Chinese, Japanese, African, Native American and Indigenous Australians all share this sacred idea that a communal gathering to swap stories and entertain is paramount to the human condition.

This shared identity underpins the fabric of humanity and indicates that no matter where one goes, what language one speaks, there is a universality in the performance of story. That there is a need for people to sit together and watch each other watch a show and become entertained; that in doing so our own entertainment is reflected back at us and redoubles the joy experienced.

Let us return to the streaming of Endgame; a rather apt performance choice to be aired in 2020. It is a play in which a cast of four individuals await the end of existence. The ever-exasperating Hamm (played by Alan Cumming) berates and antagonises his servant-turned-unwanted-housemate Clov (played by Daniel Radcliffe) who flickers back and forth between patient understanding and a desire to leave; only to be unable to do so since there is nowhere left to go. How apt a piece for our current predicament.

The existential dread of Endgame’s characters may properly reflect the cultural fabric of a society stuck in homes, unable to engage in dynamic relationships past the ethereal glow of a zoom chat meeting, silently praying to the gods of downloads not to encounter too much lag; but it still does not help to develop ways to combat our isolation.

A double-edged sword is formed from this. On one side, theatre and live performance events are becoming more widely accessible. Suddenly I share a similar consumption rate of West End performances as my mother living in semi-rural Australia; we can converse on productions that we have seen and debate the detailed minutia that would otherwise live solely within the confines of my mind. At the same time, I am forced to admit a hollow aftertaste as the performances I watch become squished, distorted, flattened as they move from three dimensions to just two.

While a piece of filmed entertainment has the ability to engage an audience through a host of techniques available in editing and graphics, theatre is limited by what it is able to do in a live run-time. There are real world limitations to the storytelling and the actors who perform on stage draw the audience in through a constant back and forth with those watching; an unspoken agreement to suspend disbelief and watch a performance in real time.

Endgame for all of it’s brilliant and deep writing on the subject of humanity, the concept of death and the penultimate breath that separate the living from those who have passed on; loses an element of depth when we watch a recording of a live performance.

As Alan Cumming’s Hamm slowly alienates and isolates himself from his servant, his parents and even the idea of the world around him, we see the suffering of humanity of display and the lengths one can go to revel in their own destruction. We close on a man who in waiting for the end of days, merely furthers his own suffering by stripping away the human contact that is needed to live life to the fullest.

The year of 2020 is one that has pushed the cultural norms and made us question the fabric that holds us together; But at least from the perspective of this theatre-lover it reinforces the understanding that we need stories; and the intimacy of sharing those stories face to face is what brings us together.

“The end is in the beginning and yet you go on.”

Pandemic and Performance: Theatre in the Time of the Internetis an article written by William Nelson. You can find more information about William on LinkedIn and Mandy.