James Robertson

James Robertson

For two months now many of us have been locked in our own private theatres, rehearsing, directing and performing our own private plays. Some of us are in family sagas, with or without a kitchen-sink focus; some of us specialise in children’s theatre; some of us are in two-handers; some of us have been delivering endless soliloquies, possibly in the mirror: ‘Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow/creeps in this petty pace from day to day/to the last syllable of recorded time…’ being standard fare. 

And indeed we don’t know how long these plays are going to run. The reviews are non-existent. It’s impossible to know if the audiences - are there audiences? - are transfixed, unaware of the passage of time, or shuffling their feet, restless and frustrated, thinking if only this would end so we can go to the bar and discuss how bloody tedious it was. We don’t know which plays are going to capture the moment best or still be worth watching in two or five or ten years. For now, we are stuck in our plays, unable to stop acting, unable to walk off-stage and out of the theatre and - if we choose - never return. 

Here is an incident from yesterday’s episode of the play I am in. The character I play (a version of myself) went out for a run, as he often does. A mile from home, he sees two people and their dog coming along the empty rural road towards him. He crosses to the other side to maintain social distance, says hello to the dog and waves at the couple. In that moment, he misses a step and suddenly is falling forward onto the road surface: one knee, second knee, palms of both hands and chin all make sharp and hard contact, more or less in that order. He gets to his feet, feeling remarkably unhurt but immediately conscious that the make-up artist has done an excellent job: there is blood everywhere. The couple are very concerned. ‘Can we phone someone?’ ‘No, it’s okay, thanks, I have my phone but I’m as quick to run home.’ Back at the house, his wife, a former nurse, cleans and dresses his wounds, including a few extra cuts and grazes he wasn’t even aware of. 

This morning he is a bit sore and stiff, but it could have been a lot worse. There was no need to go to A&E; he will mend; in a week or two he will go running again. But the incident reminds my character of his father, who in his last years used to tumble a lot, cutting and bruising himself and often breaking furniture on his way to the floor. Those falls were in a different category from yesterday’s: they were triggered by long-term illness. Still, the memory makes my character - well, all right, me - think of both my Dad, who died five years ago, and my Mum, who followed him nine months later. If they were still alive they too would be in their own private coronavirus-era play, which would have two separate settings: their house, still lived in by my mother, and the care home just down the road in which my father, suffering from various physical ailments and dementia, is a resident. My mother cared for him at home until she herself was too old and frail to do so. I could develop this scenario further in the light of current events - it is full of dramatic potential - but I don’t wish too. I’m just glad that, in reality, they don’t have to act in that particular play. 

And now I think of you, the old lady of Grindlay Street, a theatre empty of theatre for two months. I think of your name, Lyceum, and where it comes from. In ancient Athens, the Lyceum contained a temple, a gymnasium, an academy and a library, and its space had other uses too. Famously, it was where Aristotle lectured on philosophy in the peripatoi or walkways, accompanied by his students and other scholars. I am thinking of all the things that have happened in your beautiful space, and which will happen again: entertainment, education, philosophy, physical and mental exercise, music, poetry, drama, politics, communication, celebration. The list is endless. 

A theatre contains multitudes. There is nothing, in imagination if not in fact, that it cannot contain. And one day, I hope not far off, it will contain us - whether as performers or audience members - as we begin to work out where we have been, what we have been doing, and where we are going from here. Your space is going to be one of many - and not the least important - where we can reflect, examine, be astonished or afraid or angry, weep, laugh and talk; where we, the social animals that we are even if some of us have discovered how much we also like social isolation, can be together. 

Let us not be the same as we were, but neither let us forget who we were. Let us recount our old stories and create new ones. Let us listen. Let us be the same. Let us be different. 

James Robertson 

Tags: Letters