I have a guilty secret. October 2020 was one of the most exciting and creatively stimulating times I’ve had in a long time. Although besieged by shifting government guidelines over COVID restrictions and fears of imminent cancellation, the two live performances that I produced, wrote and performed in went ahead. I wouldn’t say ‘without incident’ but they did at least happen!
The first was an outdoor, immersive and freely adapted version of the classic Greek tragedy Antigone, postponed from May’s Brighton Fringe festival. The show, called Savage Beauty, had a strong climate action message and took place in our garden over an exceptionally wet and windy weekend thanks to Storm Alex − fitting, in terms of environmental message.
Fortunately, as a professional theatre company with a temporary entertainment licence (TEL), we were exempt from the government’s ‘Rule of 6’ − lucky, as our cast and crew exceeded that number! We made sure our event was COVID-secure and alerted everyone in the neighbourhood. Audience numbers were limited, face coverings (aka masks) and hand sanitiser available at the door. My son Theo, aged nine, took great pleasure in making sure everyone had their squirt.
As the light dimmed to dusk, the show began. Pretty much everything went to plan: it rained only lightly; the projection onto our neighbour’s wall (mostly) worked; the tree did not fall down and neither did I (my character delivered a diatribe to our version of the prime minister whilst swinging from a branch!); and the £500 worth of lighting hire kit did not explode in the rain.
We were heading swimmingly towards the finale when three police vans arrived. The cops pushed their way into the garden, despite my remonstrations that it was a legitimate event, not a party. It turned out a NIMBY neighbour (let’s call him ‘22’) had reported us. At first, most of the audience thought this intrusion − complete with police participation and audience interaction − was part of the action (as if our Arts Council funding would extend to a deus ex machina on that scale!). We took our curtain call while frantically waving our TEL at the cops, who were finally convinced we were kosher.
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Then it was onwards to Berlin and another adventure entirely. We’d been invited to perform at a shibari festival (erotic rope bondage for those not in the know) with our double award-winning show Everything I See I Swallow that we’d taken to Edinburgh in 2019. I was travelling with my co-performer/co-writer Maisy Taylor and the show’s director and co-deviser Helen Tennison. The show itself was about a mother-daughter relationship and explored the changing landscape of feminism over a generational divide. It was a project dear to all of our hearts that had been originally scheduled for April, but cancelled due to COVID, and we decided to go by train, as a concession to the environment.
I can’t describe to you how exciting that journey was. As much as I love Brighton, months of lockdown had left me feeling like a caged animal, and every moment of this escape was truly delicious and to be savoured: from sitting (masked) in the waiting room at Eurostar; sitting (masked) on the train to Brussels; sitting (unmasked) in our private first-class compartment from Brussels to Cologne.
Our technical manager, Jay Hirst, was travelling separately from Hull via Manchester. As both cities were under tier 3 restrictions, she was due to quarantine on arrival in Berlin, which meant me attempting to tech the show?! Fortunately she got her negative COVID test result at Berlin’s airport within 24 hours of taking it. A big phew!
German efficiency was on display everywhere. Immediately, we felt safe. Angela Merkel was in charge. People followed her instructions. When they get COVID, they don’t drive 200 miles to test their eyesight. Their numbers were down on ours, and I was up for some fun. Of course I knew that Berlin was in semi-lockdown, just like the UK, but I’d somehow assumed it would be as full of nightlife and excitement as ever. I was wrong − after the 11pm curfew it was like a ghost town. As our show went on quite late, I’d often race to find a last-minute takeaway.
Okay, I know some might wonder how one performs in a socially distanced manner at a rope bondage festival. Well, we all somehow adhered to the rules, within reason. Our show went down a storm; our German audiences showered us with compliments. We felt vindicated. All that hard work, the months of planning and re-planning, had been worth it. Some people said they were moved to tears − we had stimulated what the Greeks called catharsis, an emotional purging. We even got invited to come back the following year, pandemic permitting.
Before returning to the UK, we had two days of sightseeing in Berlin. And as always, we travelled freely, burgundy passport in hand: no restrictions, no queues, no visas. When an attendant at the splendid Pergamon Museum asked me where I was from and I told him the UK, he said, “We don’t want you to leave.” I nearly cried. But this isn’t a Brexit rant, so I’ll save that for another time…
Which brings me to my real reason for writing this: sharing stories is so important. Live theatre, in particular, has the ability to bring us together as a community, irrespective of background, class, race or gender. It’s a vital part of society, bolstering our collective humanity, mental wellbeing and, for the performers, physical strength. Of course I knew all this before COVID, but getting to share our stories at such a time, despite the restrictions, in two very distinct and different ways, really helped me to see just how precious and fragile, yet also robust, this industry is. As we navigate our second national lockdown, I relish my memories of a uniquely special October, when I was again allowed to share and perform in public.