Virus shuts many UK theaters but online the show goes on

When Andrew Lincoln steps onstage at London’s Old Vic Theatre as Ebenezer Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol,” he looks out on an empty auditorium.

The spectators are beyond the theater walls, in houses and apartments, staring at screens. In this pandemic year, the Old Vic’s seasonal production of Charles Dickens’ classic is being livestreamed nightly until Dec. 24, with ticket-holders around the world tuning in over Zoom.

“It’s a very strange experience, doing something theatrical on a stage and then not feeling the reverb of an audience,” said Lincoln, the British actor who starred for nine seasons in AMC zombie drama “The Walking Dead.”

But that is the reality of London’s West End this holiday season. The Old Vic is among theaters trying to keep the flame alive. But owners and producers warn that nine months of coronavirus-related curbs have left Britain’s performing arts on the brink — and a decision to shut theaters in the capital starting Wednesday may push them over.

Christmas is normally a golden time for British theaters. Families flock to see pantomimes — raucous seasonal shows combining fairy-tale plots with songs, satire and slapstick — and festive classics such as “A Christmas Carol.” Holiday-season revenue can carry venues through the rest of the year.

This year, more than half the U.K. population is under tight restrictions that have forced theaters, concert halls, art galleries, museums and cinemas to shut their doors.

That includes London, where theaters had just begun to reopen after a four-week national lockdown ended Dec. 2. Then, on Monday, the government slapped toughened restrictions on the capital because of a surge in infections.

Julian Bird, chief executive of industry groups the Society of London Theatre and U.K. Theatre, said the decision would cause “catastrophic financial difficulties for venues, producers and thousands of industry workers — especially the freelancers who make up 70% of the theater workforce.”

This article was previously published in The Washington Post.

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