National Theatre ‘cushioned’ by loan if theatres cannot reopen at full capacity

National Theatre bosses have said they will be “cushioned” by their loan from the Government’s Culture Recovery Fund if theatres are not allowed to reopen at full capacity from June 21 and will not join Andrew Lloyd Webber if he takes legal action.

The composer and impresario previously told the Daily Mail a delay in England’s reopening could prove to be “the final death blow” for the beleaguered sector.

While indoor entertainment venues were able to reopen from last month at reduced capacity, the restrictions meant it was not financially viable for many theatres.

There are now doubts surrounding the June 21 full reopening amid concerns over the impact of Covid-19 variants.

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Lord Lloyd-Webber told the Daily Mail if theatres are blocked from a full reopening, the issue becomes “what is the legality of the whole thing?”

He said: “If the Government’s own science has told them that buildings are safe … I’m advised that at that point things could get quite difficult.

“This is the very last thing that anybody wants to do but there would become a legal case at that point because it’s their science – not ours. I would passionately hope that we don’t have to, but I think we would have to consider it.”

The National Theatre, which received a £19.7 million loan from the CRF, reopened earlier this week with socially-distanced audiences and has announced a season of work which will see all three of its spaces reopen for the first time since March 2020.

Asked if he would join Lord Lloyd-Webber in taking legal action if theatres cannot open fully on June 21, National Theatre artistic director Rufus Norris told reporters: “I think if we look at the whole industry, it roughly breaks into three parts.

“There’s the not-for-profit theatres which include the subsidised and non-subsidised and the huge freelance workforce, and the commercial theatres.

“The Cultural Recovery Fund, without a shadow of a doubt, has placed its focus on the infrastructure of those not-for-profit theatres.

“A fantastic producer like Andrew Lloyd Webber, of course, is doing absolutely everything he can to get back employing the people to get his shows open, and to do his bit, and his bit is normally an enormous bit to contribute to the health of our creative industries.

“We don’t take quite such a hard line and we won’t be going to court over that, but I totally respect other people’s decisions to do as they see fit.”

Executive director Lisa Burger said the National Theatre is only selling tickets on a socially-distanced basis for imminent shows and shows later in the year will be sold at a lower capacity until there is confirmation of the lifting of social distancing.

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Asked if a delay to a full reopening would be “less catastrophic” for the National Theatre because of the loan, she said: “I think it’s fair to say that in the first instance we are only selling on a socially-distanced basis, and then yes, because of the loan, it does mean that we are cushioned in some way.”

However, Norris denied that taking money from the Government would hamper their artistic independence

He said: “We have an arm’s length relationship because we are funded by the Arts Council. That’s a relationship that we are very happy with and very defensive of.

“I think the arts are there to inspire, and provoke and entertain, and do a range of things.

“It’s of primary importance that we are allowed to do that. I don’t anticipate a time coming where intervention in our programme would be a condition that is hanging over that loan at all. If it were, we wouldn’t have taken it.”

Burger said Covid meant the theatre had lost a third of its workforce and had to drain its reserve after 75% of its income stopped overnight, adding the loan was the “only way to ensure our survival”.

It was announced that in a bid to reduce budgets and operate with fewer staff, in the immediate future shows will play straight runs rather than in repertory and there will be fewer productions.

Among them will be new musical Hex, based on Sleeping Beauty, which will be directed by Norris, a new production of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart and a new instalment of Death Of England, this time as a feature film shot in the Lyttleton theatre.

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Death Of England: Face To Face, will follow on from the success of Romeo & Juliet, starring Josh O’Connor and Jessie Buckley, which was filmed in the closed theatre last year and broadcast on television at Easter.

It will star Hamilton actor Giles Terera, Peaky Blinders actor Neil Maskell and Quadrophenia’s Phil Daniels.