Tom Pow

Tom Pow

A Letter for The Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh

The Irish poet, Derek Mahon, has a poem, several decades old, called Everything Is Going To Be All Right. It contains the lines:

The sun rises in spite of everything
and the far cities are beautiful and bright.

Little that I have read recently has taught me as clearly as these two lines how this pandemic has altered our imaginations. For yes, 'the far cities are beautiful and bright', but they are also unnaturally empty. Images of them multiply on the news like the closing sequence in Love Actually – the beauty and emptiness of Paris, New York, London, Madrid, Berlin, Moscow, Delhi. Vistas of streets we have seen charged with purpose: parades, marches, marathons; cityscapes designed for imperial show, for significance, now stripped of that significance and given another. 'There will be dying, there will be dying,' is another line from Mahon's poem.

However, it is certainly not a 'silent spring': in fact, a friend emails me to say that Brooklyn, where she lives, is filled with the sounds of sirens and birdsong. It is rather that the drama has moved elsewhere. We find it now in communities, in streets, in tenements, houses, rooms. In his book, Conversation: How Talk Can Change Our Lives, Theodore Zeldin writes that,

The most inspiring theatre today takes place in our houses when our improvised conversations can leave us feeling that humans are not just despicable creatures, but can be inspiring, brave, hopeful also.

We are seeing 'inspiration, bravery, hope' everywhere at the moment; not just in our own rooms, but in hospital wards, in waiting rooms, in long and patient queues. And now that theatre has come home, new learning is taking place. Creativity, as it always has, falls on people democratically and without hierarchy: the imaginative fund raiser, the home educator, the sharer of song or of craft. Alongside that popular movement, artists show what can be achieved with the resources at hand – from what can be freed from the archive or from what they can achieve 'unplugged'.

Roland Barthes wrote that, 'A society is beautiful only to the extent that there's a natural circulation between the works of its great men and the intimate life of its individuals and its homes.' Maybe this moment is showing us how that might happen – with generosity and intent. But it needs to happen without imperilling the shared experience of live theatre – of The Royal Lyceum Theatre, for example, that I have frequented as a boy and as a man. But, after this, what kind of theatre?

I would like to watch a webcast of two hours of the Lyceum's empty stage – as empty as our city streets, as expectant as a boxing ring. I would like to listen to a sound recording of five minutes from each theatre stage in Scotland to hear their different textures of 'silence'. I would like to contemplate 'the empty space'.

I write at a point at which we are full of questions about how we will come out of this pandemic; into what kind of world will we blink our way back? What will we do with what we have learned about ourselves, about our connections, about our love for each other and about our need for nature? What will we do with what we have learned – demonstratively learned – about the value our society places on people; on those who have saved us and on those whose support has been cut to the bone and yet who have kept on giving? Years after Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson showed in their book, The Spirit Level, how rising inequality is a curse on those who profit from it and on those who are most severely damaged by it, the pandemic has shown that the indices of deprivation are endless: between those with gardens and those without; between those with privacy for family members and those who must live in dangerous proximity to those they fear; between the young and the old; between those whose houses are examples of resource and resilience and those who lack the means to self-entertain, to communicate, to feel a part of a wider community of concern. It is not by chance that, as 'Britain's dotty isolationism', as The New York Review of Books calls it, has been emphatically exposed, one of the most common memes in news reports has been the wide and high bookcases against which every once reviled expert has been filmed.

So much new knowledge, so much revealed knowledge. It springs a thousand questions. The neuroscientist, Susan Greenfield, has commented that we are an 'answer rich, question poor society'. It has not served us well. Many of the questions we need to ask are overwhelming, but theatre must be a place where such questions are formed, where we go to share provocations and conversations. There is not much space around a box set for these.

To engage an audience as wide as it is possible to be, theatre will ask questions of what happened in the panelled rooms where government decisions were made, for good and ill, and in the hospital wards where questions were posed with more pain and immediacy. It will dramatise questions about how we lived and about how we want to live. It will also celebrate with humour and with insight 'inspiration, bravery and hope' - and the living world that has sustained us and whose existence we threaten.

The Russian film-maker Andrei Tarkovsky commented that, ‘Our times are characterised by the loss of rituals, but it is important to have rituals in order to find our way back to ourselves on a regular basis.’ Maybe we need to think about how ritual can enrich our lives as it has done these past weeks and months: the way we have given thanks, the way we have shown respect and care. Maybe the Lyceum could introduce, every once in a while, a socially distanced form of queuing to remind us of this time, to help us 'to find our way back' to our better selves; and to keep in our minds all those for whom patient queuing will remain a fact of life – at border posts, at food queues, at water wells. Maybe theatre could also think of a ritual involving what we have all missed most - touch.

In the meantime, Dear Lyceum, I hold to the ending of Derek Mahon's poem:

I lie here in a riot of sunlight
watching the day break and the clouds flying.
Everything is going to be all right.

Tom Pow
24 April 2020

Tags: Letters