The Old Vic is planning to stage the most ambitious and complicated piece of livestreamed UK theatre yet attempted during the pandemic with a socially distanced but full production of A Christmas Carol starring Andrew Lincoln as Ebenezer Scrooge.
The show, with a cast of 18, will play to an empty theatre for 16 performances in the run-up to Christmas.
It will be offered free to care homes across the UK and local schools. For everyone else, 5,000 tickets for each performance will be offered. Given the scale of the show, theatre bosses say they do not expect to make a profit.
In total, the production will employ 80 freelance creatives, actors and musicians, all of whom will have to be socially distanced, meaning “a level of technical and creative complication which is mind-blowing, really,” said Matthew Warchus, the theatre’s artistic director.
The performing arts continue to be one of the sectors hardest hit by the pandemic, with arts organisations coming up with innovative ways to stay creative.
For the Old Vic that has meant staging plays in an empty theatre and streaming them via Zoom to audiences in their homes so the thrill of the live experience remains. So far the In Camera series has comprised small-scale plays with no set and small casts such as Claire Foy and Matt Smith in Lungs; Andrew Scott in Three Kings, and Michael Sheen, Indira Varma and David Threlfall in Faith Healer.
“We’ve been doing that without any prior experience of how to do it, using our own in-house staff,” said Warchus.
“It has been a real challenge and a learning experience for us, technically and creatively, but it has been done so far on a small scale. This is a huge step up.”
Warchus will direct a full production of Jack Thorne’s A Christmas Carol with a set, costumes, theatrical lighting and live musicians.
The Old Vic is confident of staging the show, between 12 and 24 December, despite the government’s announcement of a new lockdown in England.
Theatres in England that had just began to reopen will have to close again, bringing further losses of income and pushing some closer to the edge. Creative freelance workers, many of whom have fallen through the gaps of government support schemes, will be among the hardest hit.
Paul W Fleming, the general secretary of Equity, called it a “body blow” and said his union’s members would have felt a mixture of “rage and confusion” after Boris Johnson’s press conference.
Jon Morgan, the director of the Theatres Trust, said he was seeking “urgent clarification” on whether rehearsals could go ahead to allow the many pantos and Christmas shows that are being planned.
The Old Vic’s previous In Camera shows have sold 1,000 tickets to replicate the theatre’s capacity but this will be increased to 5,000 per performance. “Ticket sales are crucial. It is not going to be easy for this production to make a profit at all.”
Warchus said he was approached over the summer by a number of actors, including Lincoln, asking how they could help the theatre, which was in a particularly perilous place because it gets no public subsidy.
The theatre received £3m as part of the government’s £1.57bn cultural recovery fund providing cash to allow arts organisations to survive until the spring.
“That was a massive relief,” said Warchus. “Things would have looked very grim for us if that money had not come through. It is a lifeline and keeps the creative pulse going.”
What happens after the spring is as much an unknown for the Old Vic as it is for everyone else in the world.
“We are used in theatre to thinking on our feet, having a kind of improvisatory response to things,” said Warchus. “We’re used to a press night looming and the leading actor becoming ill or scenery breaking down mid-performance … our general day-to-day in normal circumstances are fraught with unexpected twists and turns.
“But this year has been … obviously challenging. It has taken that ability to cope and put it under a lot of strain. We’ve got unknown unknowns, not the known unknowns. It is an impossible situation and like every theatre we have multiple models running of what we might be doing in the next 12 months.”