Give us a break


By playwright Alistair Beaton

Plays in London are getting shorter. In theory, this ought to be good news for authors: we can now write a play that’s a mere 75 minutes long instead of that old-fashioned 2 to 3 hours. And if the ticket price remains the same, as it normally does, we get paid the same amount for doing half the work! What could be better?

But no interval means of course no interval drinks. That’s a loss of revenue for the theatre. It’s also a loss for the audience. Let’s face it, if it’s a good play, it’s nice to have a break and a glass of wine and speculate as to what happens next (Unless it’s a Shakespeare, in which case you really ought to know what happens next). If it’s a bad play, it’s an opportunity to be rude about the directors, or the writer, or the actors, which is always a pleasure. And, importantly, if it’s a really bad play it’s a chance to leave early and soothe one’s troubled spirits with an early dinner.

Then along came COVID-19, and suddenly the interval became a health hazard. As a result, London is now planning long plays with no interval. For example, Shakespeare’s Globe has announced a new season of work with performances of Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, both socially distanced and without an interval. So definitely not a good idea to have a pint of beer beforehand (the problem being what is known in America as ‘Broadway Bladder’). It’s pointed out that this is merely a return to what the Bard originally intended, but anyone who has sat on the hard wooden benches of the Globe or stood for three hours with the groundlings in the pit (originally known as the penny-stinkers) will know that a return to Elizabethan standards of comfort is not an unalloyed pleasure.

There appears to be a risk that the interval is about to disappear. A number of English critics have welcomed the prospect. Personally, I hope the interval never disappears. Yes, the wine may be third-rate and expensive, the teaspoonful of gin drowned in a lot of tonic, the bar hot and overcrowded, but the jostling can be joyful and the communality curiously cordial. Oh, and if you’re the author, it allows you to eavesdrop on what the audience thinks of your play. This is sometimes a good idea. Sometimes not.

Alistair Beaton
London, April 2021