For many weeks after the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic started, theatres worldwide have remained in a state of great confusion between cancelling shows and postponing them.
This state of confusion remained in place until many governments decided to close all playhouses as a preventive measure to limit the spread of the virus. This crisis is one of the most difficult challenges that world theatre has faced in its history.
It is a historic crisis, in every sense of the word. To a large extent, the current deadlock echoes the dark times that English theatre endured during the plague of the 16th Century. This was the time when Shakespeare was presenting his timeless works at the famous theatre, The Globe, which still has the same distinguished position among theatres until today.
In that distant historical era, the British authorities considered theatres as venues for gatherings and which may contribute to the further spread of epidemics. It forced Shakespeare’s company to lower its flag at The Globe theatre and to lock its doors. This was in the midst of one of its most successful theatrical seasons, that included performances of King Lear and Macbeth.
However, the situation in the 21st Century is quite different from that of the 16th Century, in light of the huge technological developments that have taken place between the two eras.
This technological progress, especially in terms of social networking sites, has put all theatres worldwide in a tough position. It is the decision either to close their doors, giving up their cultural and social role to avoid any financial loss, or to sacrifice the financial gains in exchange for the satisfaction of audiences.
Very few theatres worldwide have accepted the challenge, instead moving online to share their works with the audiences for free. One of these cultural initiatives has been undertaken by the Egyptian Theatre, which launched a YouTube channel to display classic and experimental theatrical works for free. The channel was set up to encourage Egyptians to stay home during this period of social distancing and self-isolation.
New York’s Broadway Theatre also took a similar initiative, but it was disappointing, as it displayed all theatrical works online but for a fee, including classic plays.
However, the most striking initiative was that of the Abbey Theatre, Ireland’s national theatre. It proved to its audiences that theatre is not just a building, but is a chain of ideas and a conduit for the voices of people.
The theatre presented for free one of its recent works for public viewing on its official Facebook page, assuring its audiences that nothing will stop their desire to hear and share the voices of the people, whatever the circumstances.
The theatre was also keen to share the encouraging words of its founder, the great Irish poet and playwright WB Yeats, who said “Every trial endured and weathered in the right spirit makes a soul nobler and stronger than it was before.”
For public display on its Facebook page, the Abbey Theatre chose David Ireland’s Cyprus Avenue, a multi-award-winning play starring Stephen Rea and directed by Vicky Featherstone.
David Ireland’s play probes questions of national identity and political allegiance in an absurd style. The play revolves around sectarian hatred and fanaticism. The protagonist of the play, Eric (played by Rea), is a Protestant living in Belfast, who hates Catholics, because it’s the Catholics in Northern Ireland who he feels are systematically wiping out his heritage.
Generations of sectarian trauma have convinced him that his cultural heritage is under siege. The play communicates vital messages about intolerance and systematic hatred, examining the consequences of long term division and national trauma
The Egyptian Theatre also presents, on its YouTube channel, an experimental show entitled Qhwa Sada or “Black Coffee”. The show is a collection of separate sketches that cynically tackle a range of thorny issues in Egyptian society such as poverty, moral decay, mediation and favouritism, and illegal migration.
The show’s title refers to the Egyptian tradition of serving black coffee for mourners at funerals, as a metaphorical way of lamenting the lack of values and the deterioration of cultural norms in contemporary society.
The show, directed by Khaled Galal, includes a large number of young actors. Although both plays revolve in a local context, as the former delves into Irish political life, and the second explores the problems of Egyptian society, both plays review the most important problems prevailing in the world today, such as religious bigotry, poverty, moral depravity, and violence.
Marwa El-Shinawy holds a PhD in American theatre, and is a member of the Higher Committee of Cairo international Festival for Contemporary and Experimental Theatre