Arts and Entertainment in 2020: A year in lockdown
- Credit: Mike Kwasniak
It’s been a challenging year for arts and entertainment (typical British understatement) – one which started out in confident style with new season launches for DanceEast and Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds but soon it quickly became clear that this year was not going to be normal.
In January there was the usual Oscar buzz and then almost overnight we found ourselves trapped in our homes. Face masks became an essential part of our wardrobe and we found our entertainment online or on the small screen as cinemas and theatres were forced to shut their doors.
Here is a look back at our fragmented entertainment year:
It seems crazy now but, in January and February we had little idea about what awaited us. The New Wolsey’s spring season got off to a fantastic start with a pair of stunning revivals which were to launch UK tours of homegrown productions.
First up was The Ballad of Maria Marten, Eastern Angles re-titled production of Polstead, a magnificent re-telling of the 18th century true-life story of the Murder in the Red Barn. The production had originally been staged on Ipswich Waterfront and in selected barns and community venues around Suffolk in 2018.
Re-directed, re-titled and partly re-cast for the tour, it had its debut on the stage of the New Wolsey in late February and played to critical acclaim (once again) and to sold out houses. Written by Beth Flintoff, the play took our attention from murderer William Corder and re-focused it on the witty, articulate, feisty Maria Marten – giving her the opportunity to tell her story. Elizabeth Crarer did a superb job in bringing her to life just as she had done in Polstead 18 months earlier.
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Traditional Suffolk stories were very much in vogue at the start of the year. Shortly after enjoying The Ballad of Maria Marten in Ipswich, I journeyed to the National Theatre in London to sample another tale of rural life with Maxine Peake as a 18th century Suffolk mid-wife in Lucy Kirkwood’s The Welkin.
It was another stunning production and one made better by the National’s attention to detail in making sure than the accents were right. There were no West Country, Mummerset accents assaulting our ears. It was clear that director James Macdonald has worked very hard making sure than audiences got a real sense of the Suffolk location rather than it being just a piece of set dressing.
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Back at the New Wolsey, the spring season continued with the launch of the UK tour of Once – again sharing many of the same cast members who were featured in the original 2018 production. Again the re-staging was a huge hit and played to packed houses featuring Emma Lucia as the enigmatically named ‘Girl’ and Daniel Healy as ‘Guy’. It was the perfect, feelgood start to what we assumed would be a marvellously creative year.
The last performance on the New Wolsey stage before lockdown was Gecko’s performance of ‘A Little Space’ a collaborative physical theatre production with mental health charity Mind The Gap, which explored the effect that living spaces have on people’s well-being.
The stage was set for Eastern Angles touring production of Red Skies which would have been unveiled on a tour of Suffolk but the arrival of Covid-19 brought the curtain down just before the first night. The show is rehearsed and ready to go and is just waiting for the pandemic to pass to revisit the imagined meeting between George Orwell and Arthur Ransome in Southwold as the Swallows and Amazons author searched for a safe place to lay-up his boat the Nancy Blackett for the duration of the war.
As lockdown extended into spring, it became clear that the theatre industry was going to think creatively to not only win new audiences but to demonstrate to their regulars that they could continue to supply their usual theatrical ‘fix’ even though the main stages were closed.
The National Theatre and big venues like The Old Vic and the Bridge Theatre raided their archives and streamed online multi-camera recordings of past hits such as A Streetcar Named Desire (Young Vic), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Bridge Theatre), Treasure Island, Fleabag, Frankenstein, Twelfth Night (National Theatre), Angela Carter’s Wise Children (Bristol Old Vic), Joseph and his Technicolor Dreamcoat (Andrew Lloyd-Webber) and Hamilton (Disney/Cameron Macintosh) all made appearances on our computers and TVs during lockdown.
Not to be outdone local theatres accessed digital technology to remind viewers of the creativity of regional theatre as well. The New Wolsey arranged clearances for their punk musical Oxy and the Morons while Red Rose Chain decided to create a digital Theatre-in-the-Forest experience this year by recording a special version of Twelfth Night with actors from the Red Rose Company performing at home against green screen and the resulting footage being edited together and special effects added in post-production to create a new form of virtual theatre.
This process was also used by Bury St Edmunds-based Original Theatre Company to create two new streamed productions – Birdsong and Apollo 13 – which recorded actors ‘live’ at home against green-screen and edited the performances together to create something mid-way between film and theatre.
In Southwold, Theatre on the Coast preserved its summer season of local premieres by staging its productions of royal drama All 4 One and Attagirls!, the story of women pilots in World War II, before a select, socially distanced audience and streaming the show to audiences around the country.
Galleries had a very hard time of it this year. The biggest exhibition of the year was undoubtedly Made In Suffolk: The Ed Sheeran exhibition curated by his dad, John Sheeran.
Although, the exhibition opened last year, several schools and community events were launched in January allowing young students to be inspired by the work of artist Colin Davidson and photographer Mark Surridge.
In November the Made in Suffolk auction, a legacy event organized by Ed’s parents John and Imogen Sheeran in conjunction with Suffolk charity fundraiser Gins Long, raised more than £400,000 which was divided between two Suffolk charities: the Thomas Wolsey Ormiston Academy School in Ipswich, where it will pay for a new playground, and the balance going to Zest, a service run by the St Elizabeth’s Hospice, which supports young people aged 14 and over who have life limiting or progressive conditions.
Film & TV:
This was the year that subscription TV really took off. Lockdown was the driver for glossy, big budget international TV. It also stole cinema’s thunder as the multiplex and the arthouse venues were forced to close.
As live entertainment shut down, you watched new films and big budget event TV like Disney’s The Mandalorian (what amounted to serialised films) on the small screen and went to a drive-in to re-live classic feelgood movies like Grease, Dirty Dancing and The Greatest Showman.
2020 was the year that TV completed its hypnotic dance and entranced not only the nation but the world.
If TV thrived and channels multiplied as we all subscribed to an increasing number of services, cinema faced a very real threat to its very existence. Not only were their doors shut on Government orders for much of the year, but when they were allowed to open they had precious little to show as all the major studios either postponed their releases or moved them to streaming services.
The big loss of the year was Daniel Craig’s swan song as James Bond in the prophetically named No Time To Die which was originally to be released at Easter, then pushed back to August and now will not be released until sometime in 2021 – almost two years after the completion of principal photography.
The other high-profile casualty, so far as the cinemas were concerned, was Disney’s live action re-imagining of their animated classic Mulan. As the Covid crisis kept audiences away from cinemas, Disney made the decision to release Mulan, one of its big tent-pole releases for the year on its Disney+ streaming channel – a move which did not please cinemas which, by the summer were struggling to pay their bills.
Cinephile film-maker Christopher Nolan insisted that his latest film Tenet was released on the big screen but profits were less than stellar because the film’s complex narrative put off some audiences who were, perhaps, looking for something lighter and more easily digestible.
Unsurprisingly, some of highlights of the year came in those first few weeks of the year before the pandemic brought chaos to a vibrant industry. The year started promisingly with a homegrown hit in the form of The Personal History of David Copperfield, Armando Iannucci’s, imaginative re-working of the Charles Dickens classic, which was partly shot in Bury St Edmunds and featured the Theatre Royal, the Athenaeum and Angel Hill.
Other early hits included the evocative French romance Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Gemma Arterton’s touching war-time drama Summerland which transported audiences back to a world of rationing and long-hot summers on the south coast.
Like theatres, cinemas were not prepared to sit idly by and watch their audiences be stolen from them. The Riverside Cinema in Woodbridge went into production with local film-maker Tim Curtis and commissioned the documentary The War Just Outside Ipswich which told the story of the films shots at the World War One trench system at Akenham and how the living history group Khaki Devils came to create and maintain the site.
On the small screen, viewers were completely overwhelmed and spoilt for choice. My personal highlights for 2020 included the deceptively moving Canadian comedy Schitt’s Creek starring Eugene Levy and his family, the atmospheric German thriller Babylon Berlin set during the decadent years of the Weimar Republic, Billie Piper and Lucy Prebble re-teamed for I Hate Suzie which lifted the lid on a B-List celebrity caught up in a sex scandal, while Normal People looked at young people discovering love and coping with meaningful relationships, I May Destroy You tackled the serious subject of dealing with rape, Quiz revisited the Charles Ingram Who Wants To Be A Millionaire scandal and asked the TV audience to make to make up their own minds on whether he cheated or not and Disney won the biggest audiences of the year with their incredibly filmic Star Wars series The Mandalorian which successfully managed to recapture the look and feel of George Lucas’ first three films.
And then just before Christmas Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant confounded and surprised us for weeks on end with the fiendishly compelling The Undoing. We were indeed spoilt for choice…but despite all that we still hankered for some good old-fashioned live entertainment because music, theatre, cinema is always better when its shared.