Should The Old Vic be charging audiences up to £65 to watch a live stream of their hit show, Lungs when other theatres are doing it for free? Eleanor Dewar discusses.

As lockdown drags on into its third, tiring month, live streams and pub quizzes have almost become the norm for major UK theatres as they battle against the financial ruin of COVID-19. Regular streamings from the National Theatre, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Shakespeare’s Globe and countless more have all been offered free of charge with the option for those who can, to donate. With no sign of relief from either virus or government, it unfortunately appears though, that theatre is reverting to its potentially privileged ways.

Last week, the Old Vic announced the socially distanced return of Lungs, a play by Duncan MacMillan that starred The Crown’s Claire Foy and Matt Smith in a successful run last October. It will once again be in the 1,000-seat (now empty) auditorium and will be streamed for us to watch at home. The play itself could not be more fitting right now since flying and long-distance driving is all but non-existent and we have seen a dramatic improvement in our planet. The stream will not be free, however, with tickets ranging from £10-£65 and this gives me cause for concern.

To their credit, the Old Vic have stated that the view of the show will not be affected, and that the ticket price is meant to be more of a donation. Additionally, the Old Vic is a charity and thus does not receive government funding like other major theatres and places it in a far more vulnerable situation than some of its London counterparts. But in a time where job loss is rife and financial stability is far from certain for millions of people, a minimum fee of £10 is not to be sniffed at.

Exact details on tickets given by the Old Vic are not clear, with the only implication being that if tickets are ‘seats’, there will be a limited amount in each price-bracket. If this is the case, it is highly likely that the cheaper tickets will sell out first and thus leave many people who may not be able to afford the higher prices, ultimately left out.

The virus and lockdown have not only exposed the financial privilege impacting theatre audiences in terms of being able to access new and exciting theatre but also once again a London-centric survival mode is appearing to be kicking in. Though London’s West End has seen the early closure of Waitress, it is the regional tours that have clearly suffered the brunt of COVID-19, with more tours being cancelled and rescheduled every day – the latest being The Phantom of the Opera which only managed to play its Leicester venue.  Though it is imperative that the London theatre scene survives, again not everyone has the financial means, or feel it safe enough to make the journey to London.

Though the two do seem like different issues, they have similar privileges. If someone cannot afford £10 to buy the ticket, how does one expect them to find the means to travel to London when it is deemed safe to travel again. Thus, if both regional tours and accessible streaming is removed then you are left with a large group of people who seemingly must wait till theatres like the Old Vic re-open and live performance to begin again. With no end date in sight and with some theatres such as the Birmingham Hippodrome and Leicester Curve stating they will not open until November, it leaves those that are not financially privileged without theatre for a much longer period of time.

It has been said enough times that when this is all ‘over’, things cannot go back to the way they were and the same applies to the theatre industry. In their bid to survive, it could be argued that venues like the Old Vic have resorted back to old habits and are relying on highly privileged structures to keep afloat.  The industry must remember that its audiences are also struggling – both with past and new problems – and potentially alienating them during this critical time will not help when theatres finally reopen.