/Old Vic theatre is in seriously perilous position, warns Matthew Warchus

Old Vic theatre is in seriously perilous position, warns Matthew Warchus

The Old Vic, one of London’s oldest and most illustrious theatres, is in a “seriously perilous” financial situation caused by the Covid-19 crisis, says its artistic director, Matthew Warchus.

Warchus said that the Old Vic is one of a group of organisations, including Shakespeare’s Globe, the Royal Academy and the Royal Albert Hall, that have “significant cultural presence but, unusually, no government funding”. The theatre is a charity that relies entirely on ticket sales, sponsorship and donations. It has some reserve funds but according to Warchus it is a matter of “a small number of months” before those run out and there is “no safety net” after that.

How long its reserves will last is “the big question we talk about nearly every day”, said Warchus, and depends partly on how much further the government’s furlough scheme is extended. Eighty per cent of the organisation’s staff are currently furloughed and the scheme has kept the theatre from “falling to pieces”, he explained, but it is not a long-term solution. Rishi Sunak has extended the furlough job retention scheme until the end of October, but many theatres are not expecting to open until after that date. Warchus’s staff, who have all taken a 20% pay cut, “are working harder than they have ever worked”.

We’ll Be Back ... the Old Vic theatre, May 2020.

We’ll Be Back … the Old Vic theatre, May 2020. Photograph: Manuel Harlan

Although he is in regular discussions with other industry leaders, finding strategies to enable theatres to successfully operate in an age of social distancing has been a tough challenge. “We are all puzzling away, thinking hard about how we can respond to this situation and what our creative input can be. There are some bright people on those calls. We are mostly stumped because our hands are tied behind our backs: if you can’t bring performers and creatives together, with an audience, you’re incredibly limited.” There have been some successful digital initiatives, he acknowledged, but they were “only a sticking plaster” and no substitute for live performance.

Warchus said that experiencing live theatre has a “significant healing power” and can play a vital role in boosting mental health and enabling empathy. “At a time of crisis, theatre could be doing enormous good and yet this particular crisis means theatres can’t be open.” When the lockdown begins to ease, theatres are widely expected to be among the last venues to open up, but Warchus believes cultural institutions such as his 1,000-seat venue will be essential “to help rebuild and reintegrate society” after we have endured a lengthy period of isolation.

The Old Vic’s 2018 production A Monster Calls, directed by Sally Cookson, will be streamed online.

The Old Vic’s 2018 production A Monster Calls, directed by Sally Cookson, will be streamed online. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

On Wednesday the theatre is announcing a major programme of new work entitled Your Old Vic, which includes education and training resources, activities for children, advice for emerging artists and community schemes, including a pen pal initiative, connecting primary school children with older people. “One of the most exciting things about being an artistic director is seeing schoolchildren lining up outside about to have their first taste of theatre,” he said. “But I’m also really conscious of how important theatre is for older people.” The scheme, which is part of this year’s Great Get Together celebration in memory of Jo Cox, was inspired by Old Vic carol concerts given by older people and schoolchildren together. Participants will get to know each other and stay in touch via emails and phone calls as well as letters.

The Old Vic has also commissioned Booker prize-winning author Bernardine Evaristo to write a new monologue about the NHS and the theatre is developing a wider artistic celebration of the NHS in 2021. It will soon be sharing “a handful” of its archive productions for free online, starting with its popular adaptation of Patrick Ness’s book A Monster Calls, streamed online in a similar fashion to the National Theatre at Home scheme.

In mid-March, the Old Vic became one of the first theatres to announce its temporary closure when it cancelled the remaining run of its acclaimed production of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, starring Daniel Radcliffe and Alan Cumming. In an email to Endgame ticket-holders, the theatre stated that offering a full refund would be “financially devastating” and asked customers to consider donating the cost of their tickets. It has since postponed upcoming productions including Amy Herzog’s eagerly anticipated play 4000 Miles, which was due to give the film star Timothée Chalamet his London stage debut opposite Eileen Atkins. That production is ready to go, said Warchus, and will be staged “as soon as we possibly can”, but he accepted that it was unlikely to happen this year. The theatre’s next scheduled production is a return of its popular version of A Christmas Carol, adapted by Jack Thorne, which has had three runs at the Old Vic and has also been staged on Broadway. It is currently set to open on 21 November.

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