The last time I went to the theatre, I knew I wouldn’t be back for a while. It was mid-March, the final Sunday of Adelaide’s festivals; the government was “advising against” gatherings of more than 500 people from Monday.
There was nothing of the rush of people exhausted but buoyed by art, trying to squeeze out every last drop. The crowds were thin, yet the air was thick with the unease of the unknown of what was to come.
For six months, my life was quiet and sheltered. Six months of early bedtimes, of only seeing my dearest friends. Six months without so many things I love – six months of being anxious that avoiding the things I am anxious about will only make my anxiety worse as I return to these things I love.
With the Covid-19 case numbers so low, life here in Adelaide has pretty much returned to normal. The biggest difference is the worried way we look towards Victoria and feel like we should hush our voices when talking about the normalcy of life here.
Even the theatre is back. The State Theatre Company of South Australia is the first mainstage theatre company to return to the stage in Australia, performing Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 play Gaslight to half-capacity audiences in the 1,500-seat recently redeveloped Her Majesty’s Theatre.
As soon as I enter Her Majesty’s, all of the little ways we perform when going to the theatre come rushing back. Smiles in the bathroom mirrors. Head nods to the ushers. Fumbling for tickets when you reach the door. Following the backwards alphabet until you find your row.
There are new performances, too: I am seen into the foyer by a maskless security guard (he does not check my ticket or any other form of identification) while blue masked cleaners wipe down the handrails of the balcony. The bars are closed (although pubs are open, and you can drink at the cinema and the football). I pass three hand sanitiser dispensers between the entrance and my seat.
We are each surrounded by empty seats on four sides, and asked to maintain distance. But people crowd in the aisles to catch up; they lounge over seat backs to grab the ear of that friend they haven’t seen in too long.
Then the lights dim. Seats are taken. The magic gets to me.
I’m not watching actors in stories filmed years ago or performances through the grainy lens of Zoom. I’m watching art being created in front of me. The cast occasionally trip over a line and speak on top of each other to catch up. I am joyous in these little errors. I want to scoop them up and hold them: these glitches that show, finally, we are together again.
Performance is about shared space: with the performers, but also with the audience. It’s about the breathing of the same air – an act that now feels illicit. A phone rings, and I am happy. A hearing aid gets dislodged and whistles over the crowd and I look to see whose it is. Someone coughs, and there isn’t the usual chorus of coughing in its wake. Some things have shifted.
We’re in it together, in a way I hadn’t even admitted to myself how much I missed.
And the play? The play is fine. It’s a period drama, programmed in a world that was, scheduled into a season that never will be. It’s a psychological drama with all the gravitas of a whodunnit spoof; it’s British accents with all the skill of Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins. It’s acting with so much ham it could only come from six months of no one setting foot on a stage – or maybe this is just what stage acting is like, and I have forgotten.
But none of this really matters. The season has almost sold out. The play’s not the thing; the theatre is.
As we leave the auditorium, a piped-in voice asks us to please stay 1.5 metres apart. By the time we have spilled on to the footpath the warnings have been ignored. What was a carefully segregated audience, one seat apart on every side, has become what an audience should be: a mass, a writhing organism.
The shape of this organism shifts, people peeling off their group to say hello to someone else. There are the pockets of friends we have stayed in touch with through this time, there are the acquaintances we haven’t spoken to for months. Perhaps most preciously, there are the strangers we have become so unused to seeing at all.
I was scared, after so long away, that my own anxieties would have festered. I was scared that returning to the theatre – returning to humanity – would have felt too much. But, instead, I am gloriously reminded of how sitting in the dark among strangers is one of my favourite ways to be. Alone, and private, and part of something so much bigger than me.
• Gaslight by Patrick Hamilton is showing at Her Majesty’s Theatre in Adelaide until 19 September