Hilary Mantel play to close amid Covid uncertainty

Royal Shakespeare Company cancels planned extension of The Mirror and the Light in West End

The Royal Shakespeare Company has cancelled a planned extension of its West End stage production of Hilary Mantel’s novel The Mirror and the Light citing uncertainty and risk.

“Over recent days, it has become clear that the ever-changing environment creates a level of uncertainty that does not support the risk involved in extending the run beyond its original planned end date,” the RSC and Playful Productions said in a statement.

The play, at the Gielgud theatre in London, will close on 28 November. The run had previously been extended until 23 January.

Over the last week, there has been speculation that some Covid restrictions may be reintroduced because of the rising rates of infection and pressure on the NHS. The government’s “plan B” includes mandatory mask wearing in crowded indoor places, encouraging people to work from home if possible, and a requirement to prove Covid vaccination status to gain entry to nightclubs.

It does not include social distancing measures or the closure of hospitality and entertainment venues. But some scientists have warned that such measures may have to be reintroduced if Covid infections and hospitalisations increase.

The stage version of The Mirror and the Light, the third part of Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy, opened in September. The producers’ statement said it had “enjoyed a hugely successful run, delighting audiences with many commenting that this was their first trip back to the theatre since the initial lockdown 18 months ago”.

The production had a cast of 24 and “has created work for hundreds of freelance practitioners after an impossible year”, the statement said.

UK theatres suffered catastrophic losses after closing because of restrictions relating to the pandemic. A survey published in March 2021 by the Society of London Theatre and UK Theatre found collective losses of almost £200m in the previous 12 months. A quarter of freelancers had gone out of business or ceased trading because of the pandemic.

Many theatres reopened in May but initially struggled with cancellations of performances due to cast and crew members testing positive for Covid or isolating after coming into contact with someone with the virus.

Most theatres have voluntarily implemented Covid measures such as improving ventilation, requiring proof of vaccination or a recent negative test, and urging audiences to wear face masks.

Box office sales have been slower than before the pandemic, and many theatres have had empty seats. Theatre-goers tend to be older and may be more cautious about the risks of infection.

Stephanie McKeon, who plays Anna in the West End production of Frozen, tweeted on Sunday: “A plea to amazing London audiences: Please please please wear your masks in the theatre. We are working so hard on our end to ensure everyone is safe and to keep our shows running. We would be so grateful if you could help us out and do your bit too.”

Responding to the announcement about The Mirror and the Light, Hilary Hadley of the actors’ union Equity said: “It is deeply disappointing for our members to have been given notice that the production will close at the end of November and that they will now be out of work during the Christmas period.

“It is also disappointing that the producers do not feel sufficiently supported by the government. Currently, there is not an affordable insurance scheme that would give them confidence that they would be covered in the event of possible further disruption of performances due to the pandemic, nor indeed do they have any consistency from the government in terms of Covid prevention measures such as mask wearing.”

The stage version of The Mirror and the Light, co-written by Mantel and Ben Miles, who plays Thomas Cromwell, received mixed reviews. The Guardian gave it three stars, saying there was “a dull sense of a historical juggernaut juddering to a halt”. The Standard, however, said it completed a “magnificent theatrical hat-trick”.

People with tickets would be given the option of moving to a date before 28 November or receiving a refund, the play’s producers said.


Harriet Sherwood Arts and culture correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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