© Provided by The GuardianPhotograph: David Levene/The Guardian
Britain's cultural institutions are at a crossroads moment, according to the National Theatre's deputy artistic director, who says the public want challenging art rather than "comforting" work as venues reopen and lockdown eases.
Clint Dyer, the playwright and actor who took on the NT role in January, said that before the pandemic mainstream theatre often comforted rather than confronted its audience. "A lot of the work in the mainstream was there to say: 'Oh, this is the world that we know you like seeing,'" said Dyer.
He believes that in the 15 months since theatres closed their doors there has been a shift in audience appetite, with theatregoers wanting to "get underneath the skin" of societal issues. "We don't want the superficial any more," he said. "People thought you can have a good night out if we rub off the rough elements, but now I think people are more willing to engage with the rough elements."
There has been a fear that the large-scale redundancies during the pandemic - an estimated 40% of theatre workers lost their jobs - could be followed by a reopening packed with "safe" work. Instead, "bold" is the adjective being used to describe much of what is to come.
The West End, which rarely takes risks when failures can be financially ruinous, has Cruise, a musical about HIV, at the Duchess theatre and a six-week season from Sonia Friedman called Re:Emerge, which pairs new writing by Yasmin Joseph, Amy Berryman and Joseph Charlton with established acting talent including Gemma Arterton and Emma Corrin.
Elsewhere, the Kiln Theatre opens with a debut play by Amy Trigg about a woman in her 20s navigating life with spina bifida, Hampstead Theatre is doing a revival of Alfred Fagon's Death of a Black Man, while Battersea Arts Centre is making all its shows pay-what-you-can.
Ian Rickson, the artistic director and co-curator of Re:Emerge, said the political climate had contributed to a reopening that is more adventurous than may have been expected. "You've got all these weather fronts outside the industry, whether that's Black Lives Matter or Kill the Bill or climate change. There's been a consciousness shift," he said.
"However catastrophic Covid-19 has been, it's allowed artists and citizens to really think about who we are, how we're connected to each other, and - specifically in terms of theatre - what work we want to make."
There are more cautious voices. Indhu Rubasingham, the artistic director of the Kiln theatre, is optimistic that audiences will give new writing their backing, but says the sector is "dependent on box office revenue" and under pressure to get bums on seats.
"We can't guarantee a 100% success rate, but we have to be bold and imaginative in order for our sector to survive," she said. "The temptation for short-term survival is to be conservative, but that's not going to result in long-term survival."
Like Rickson, Rubasingham believes the impact of the pandemic and social movements such as Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion are influencing arts programming. "I think we're in a real fulcrum moment," she said. "Parts of society want change, but then I think there's also fear of that change because it challenges traditional power bases. I'm intrigued to see which side of the fulcrum we're going to fall."
Oscar winners and other awards season favourites are on offer for cinemagoers, with Chloe Zhao's elegiac road movie, Nomadland, finally hitting screens. Sound of Metal, Riz Ahmed's portrait of a musician coming to terms with hearing loss, which has been available on streaming platforms, will also be an option for many. Pedro Almodóvar and Tilda Swinton's short collaboration, The Human Voice, Billie Piper's romcom, Rare Beasts, and Kelly Reichardt's First Cow are also out. © Photograph: David Levene/The GuardianTechnical rehearsals for Cruise at the Duchess theatre in London's West End.
Major chains including Odeon, Cineworld and Vue are expected to reopen most if not all of their sites from Monday. Smaller chains and independents such as Curzon, Everyman and London's Prince Charles Cinema will also open.
In the museums sector, the charity Art Fund said 55% of the 300 museums it surveyed feared for their long-term future after visitor numbers and profits plummeted during lockdown. It found that footfall was down 75% in the last financial year compared with the previous 12 months, and income was down by 62%, with 37% of museums in the survey facing a new deficit.
Last-minute preparations have been taking place to get venues ready to accept visitors and start their recovery. Many of English Heritage's sites have been preparing to reopen. Bobbin Mill in Cumbria, which produced bobbins for Lancashire's weaving industry, is one of many sites to have undergone a deep clean after being shut for the duration of lockdown.
The National Trust said it was looking forward to welcoming visitors to its houses from Monday, following the reopening of its parks, gardens and countryside locations. Hilary McGrady, the director general, said: "Our places are nothing without our visitors there to enjoy them and our staff and volunteers have been working hard behind the scenes cleaning chandeliers, polishing floors and dusting books to get everything ready."