Opera Glasses and a Packet of Frazzles: Visiting the Theatre in the Middle of a Pandemic

I can’t believe I just wrote those words – visiting the theatre in the middle of a pandemic. The NHS is straining at the joints, with doctors and nurses risking their lives on a daily basis, and I’m standing on my bloggy doorstep clapping for the National Theatre. Yes, I was happily listening to the wireless and dancing as the Titanic went down. War? What war? I was having a picnic and playing Cluedo at the time.

But I am genuinely grateful that the National Theatre has decided to stream productions into my living room via YouTube once a week. I couldn’t be more grateful, in fact, because for a whole day we’re able to pretend that we don’t have to stay in, that the world isn’t slowly falling apart at the seams, that we’re normal.

This Thursday, it was our anniversary.

“I wonder if you’ll do me the honour of joining me at the theatre tonight?” I asked sheepishly, as if she might have something better to do.

We’ve been having conversations like this since the lockdown began.

“Where shall we go today? Brighton? We could see our friends, have a paddle, check out La Choza. Nom Nom Nom.”

Sometimes we lick our lips, smile, and let our imaginations take us there. Sometimes we don’t.

But this was real. This was a way out of our ‘Stay at Home’ for a few hours. This was an event.

“We could get dressed up, move the sofa, put the light out, grab the opera glasses and Frazzles.” (Our snack cupboard was looking a bit bare.)

So we did. I in my long pinstripe jacket and bowtie, hair oiled back and moustache drawn on with eyeliner pencil. She in her flapper dress and boa. I have no idea where she found the peacock feather to stick in her hair, but it was a nice touch.

And I’m grateful for the countdown on YouTube before the show began, during which we chatted about how the traffic wasn’t too bad getting there, but we wished they sold better snacks; how I had to queue for ages for the toilet and came back with toilet roll stuck to the bottom of my shoe; how we hoped that the woman in front of us would take off her exceptionally large hat before the show began.

And then the theatre darkened, the curtain rose, and we spent the next few hours laughing at the farcical antics of James Corden and co in One Man, Two Guvnors, breaking only, perhaps ironically, to join in the actual doorstep clap for the NHS at 8.00 p.m., in full costume, before walking back down the dark aisle to find our seats again (H24 and H25 – not too bad for the money we paid, but we would have preferred the stalls, and the man sitting next to me could have slurped his champagne a little less noisily).

I’ve read tweets this week by people who question the worth of financially supporting the arts in these troubling times. I wonder if these same people have done any of the following during their isolation: watched Netflix, TV, YouTube, read a book, magazine, poem or blog, listened to music, a podcast, an audiobook, gazed at a picture on the wall that made them smile or reminded them of better times, been moved by photography or dance or even simply sustained themselves with conversations and memories of times spent exploring the visionary architecture, galleries, theatre productions and festivals of their past … I could go on.

Art, in its many forms, takes us places, gives us freedom, and this is more important than ever as our world seems to get a little bit smaller every day. It makes us laugh or cry and helps us to escape our insecurities and fears, and if we’re lucky, it teaches us a little about the human condition, strengthens and restores us, so we’re able to cope and even find a way to be useful when, for most of us, it feels like our hands are tied.

So, I guess, I’m not just grateful to the National Theatre, but to anyone who has ever picked up a pen, a paintbrush, a guitar, a camera or anything else that can be used to create. I can’t imagine this time without you.

Follow Hayley Sherman …  @hayleystories

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