‘I don’t know what’s worse, the sun or the rain,” confides Timothy Sheader, artistic director of the Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park, the oldest professional, permanent outdoor theatre in Britain. In a normal year, this week’s weather – scorching heatwave one moment, thunderous downpour the next – would have been a major headache. Yet in Covid-stricken 2020, concern about heatstroke or the heavens unleashing a flood has become a mere sideshow.
The fact that we’re meeting face to face to discuss an impending opening is little short of miraculous, and also attests to the saving grace of this theatre being exposed to the elements. The entire summer season had to be postponed until next year after the closures of March. When restrictions on outdoor performances were lifted in July, some venues outside the capital sprang into action but it looked as if the decision had come too late for a similarly happy outcome at the Open Air which – founded in 1932 – even kept going in the war.
Yet Sheader, 48, has managed to resurrect (and retool) one of his most admired productions – an Olivier-winning, concert-style account of Jesus Christ Superstar that played here in 2016, then at the Barbican (winning an Olivier) and in the States. Exuding a vaguely messianic air, what with his beard and pensive loquacity, the Scarborough-born director is trying to give the whole industry a morale-boosting shot in the arm. This is the first major theatre production since lockdown. “Part of the thinking is to offer a beacon of hope for audiences, artists and technicians that we will get back to work,” he says, taking a breather from rehearsals on the balcony outside his office.
The logistics, though, are fiendish. The project was assembled at lightning speed – less than a week between the initial decision, taken with his executive director William Village, and tickets going on sale. With auditorium capacity perforce reduced to less than a third (down from 1,256 to 390), one challenge is managing the flow of audience members safely (there’ll be temperature checks, hand gel, and one-way signs galore).
The task has been made harder by the addition of more – socially distanced – seating (about 100 spectators a time) on the lawn outside, watching a live-relay on a big screen, a departure for the theatre and a way of making the sums stack up (Village reveals that almost £2 million – approximately half – of the reserves have been used keeping the unsubsidised venue afloat).
But the biggest feat involves making the show itself Covid-secure. “It’s like Noises Off,” Sheader says with weary good cheer, alluding to Michael Frayn’s tightly plotted farce of audience-facing and backstage action. “If a performer is singing out front then the person next to them has to be two metres away. If they’re singing face to face, it has to be three metres. We’ve got pink tape marking two metres, green tape marking out the extra metre. The actors can’t move about, so a lot of the choreography will be done on the spot.” There’s no touching, no sharing of props. If a microphone is to be handled by different performers, it has to be wiped clean first.
Similar strictures apply backstage: the band is being specially spaced, and every performer will know where to stand prior to their entrances and after their exits. “Nothing is being left to chance. I don’t think any of us appreciated how long that would take to plan.” Sheader senses there may be artistic gains – “the distance seems to create a stronger sense of isolation and pain in the crucifixion scene” – but it’s still early days: the first complete run-through can only take place just before the first night.
Amid all this, the 22-strong company needs to radiate the requisite emotion and enjoyment, so that the evening itself, while restricted by the measures, isn’t diminished in its potency. “We want the audience to feel that it wasn’t a million miles from the usual experience – it’s no good them leaving at the end of the night and not wanting to go to the theatre again.”
Despite the Open Air being one of the most beautiful theatres in London to work in, Sheader isn’t especially seduced by its bowery ambience. He arrived 12 years ago as artistic director feeling that “the bucolic had had a good go, we’d seen that”. He rationed Shakespeare, reduced the number of star names, introduced more straight plays into the mix, using the fading evening light to explore darker terrain, thinking big and working in a radical fashion to create “event theatre”.
Such daring has yielded particular fruit with musicals – his 2010 reimagining of Sondheim’s Into the Woods, framing the fairytale action through the perspective of a lonely boy, won an Olivier. The Evita directed by Jamie Lloyd last summer, the set of which he is cannibalising for Superstar, had the same revelatory sharpness as the latter. But he hasn’t always taken the audience with him with the plays – there were walkouts at his 2017 staging of A Tale of Two Cities, which recast Dickens’s novel for the mass-migration age with copious swearing and, in previews, an adult sexual encounter.
The son of a factory worker and dental nurse, and the first in his family to go to university (he studied law at Birmingham before pursuing his vocation), Sheader gets impassioned on socio-political questions. Certainly theatre is currently going through a major revolution as identity politics takes hold. He believes the industry might be going through an upheaval akin to when John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger arrived at the Royal Court.
“I think it’s possibly a 1956 moment and that means some of us will have to step aside – I’m talking about theatremakers. It’s not guillotine stuff, it’s just about levelling up.” Not “guillotine” at all? “Yes, perhaps some of what’s on social media is like that but in theatre we’re talking about diversity and inclusion aren’t we? We’re opening the doors – and letting more people tell their stories. These days I feel massively scrutinised by the public – it can be uncomfortable but accountability is important. I’m completely aware of the privilege I hold in this job and when I have to give it up I will.”
He shies from giving a departure date. And plainly at bare minimum there’s the unfinished business of the shunted 2020 season, which he’s going to rethink. In a way, Sheader – affability incarnate – feels like the proselytiser for the power of theatre we need at this crisis point when it’s battling to survive and re-find its way. For him, the Open Air Theatre itself encapsulates the artform’s intrinsic value. “There’s always a condescension towards outdoor theatre, partly because it might get interrupted or you might not experience it in its perfect form. But I think one of the joys of this place is that it’s so totally unpredictable. At a time when people are streaming so much TV, here you are in a theatre watching something truly happening in the moment. We must celebrate that.”
Jesus Christ Superstar: The Concert runs from today until Sept 27. Box office 0333 400 3562 or book online at openairtheatre.com