What was it theatregoers missed most during the months of lockdown? It is a question vexing arts promoters even now. Anecdotal evidence suggests audiences are less predictable than they ever were. Even on a town-by-town basis, box-office figures show wild variations – a hit for a touring show in one theatre can be a flop in the next.
Pre-pandemic, you would have assumed some shows would pull in the crowds for their familiar titles alone. But the producers of The Addams Family pulled the plug on the last four dates of its UK tour – including Aberdeen and Edinburgh in June – blaming the “continued impact of the effects of Covid on our audiences and their willingness to return to the theatres”. Likewise, The Da Vinci Code ended its run prematurely pointing the finger at the “current challenges of touring”.
Just to confuse things further, some shows have bucked this trend. Black Is The Color Of My Voice by Edinburgh’s Apphia Campbell has been doing healthy box office, albeit on a smaller scale, since its run in London’s West End. This is at it should be – it is an excellent show and well worth seeing on its return to the Fringe – but who would have imagined a play about Nina Simone and the civil rights movement would be a better bet than an adaptation of a Dan Brown novel?
“Apphia's show has always been popular with audiences,” says producer James Seabright. “But in part, I think, thanks to a renewed interest in the history of the civil rights movement during the pandemic, we have indeed been able to put it out on its biggest ever tour in 2022. The show is returning to the Fringe, having had a very successful season there in 2021, and we hope to continue its success there.”
All of which adds an extra layer of jeopardy for those gambling on success in the forthcoming month in Edinburgh. What is it audiences will be hankering for? There is a reasonable line of thought that after two years of TVs and laptops, they will have a renewed appetite for spectacle.
There are those in Hollywood who would agree. Tom Cruise starring in a visually audacious blockbuster is nothing new, but Top Gun: Maverick became his biggest box office hit when it was released this spring. Its worldwide income now comfortably exceeds $1bn. People talked about Christopher Nolan’s action-packed Tenet in similar ways when it was released in the summer of 2020, luring audiences back into cinemas after the first lockdown. The thrill of watching such movies on the big screen is impossible to match elsewhere.
The creators of Abba Voyage will be thinking along the same lines. Staged in a made-to-measure 3000-capacity London arena, the show turns the Swedish popsters into digital avatars (or Abbatars, if you prefer) representing their younger selves singing along to the accompaniment of a ten-piece band. Achieving the uncanny rebirth took around 1000 animators and recordings from 200 cameras filming from every angle. The stadium has nearly 300 speakers.
So if spectacle is the answer, where will it be found in August? When it comes to opening in dazzling style, Fergus Linehan, outgoing artistic director of the Edinburgh International Festival (EIF), has form. His innovation was to open the Festival with a ravishing display and, having delighted the crowds with high-tech graphics on the façade of the Usher Hall and the side of the Castle Rock, he is launching this year’s 75th-anniversary programme with Macro, a large-scale display of circus, projections, drums and light.
Staged for free at BT Murrayfield, the sold-out event is the work of Australian circus troupe Gravity And Other Myths with the First Nations dance-theatre company Djuki Mala. They will be joined by the National Youth Choir Of Scotland and a handful of Scottish folk musicians. It features human towers, death-defying leaps and all-encompassing visual effects – none of which, it is safe to say, can be replicated on a Zoom call.
If you have not been able to grab tickets for that event, you can see the same company at the Edinburgh Playhouse in The Pulse, another large-scale work that brings together acrobats and choral singers. No fewer than 60 of them create mountains of bodies and walls of sound. Normally those performers would have been working all over the world, but the pandemic brought them back to Australia. That is where the idea of such a large-scale event was conceived, in order to give them something to do. In that sense, it is an assertion of community made at a time of greatest atomisation.
When James Thierrée prepared to bring The Toad Knew to the EIF in 2016, he told me he was "searching for that feeling when you listen to a piece of music". Now, the grandson of Charlie Chaplin is following that remarkable fantasia with Room, another hallucinatory spectacle which, in the absence of a plot, works its dreamlike magic on an audience like an abstract score. That it takes place in a single room, constructed and deconstructed before our eyes, might remind us of the confinement of lockdown.Add to this the usual range of shows at venues such as Underbelly’s Circus Hub on the Meadows and there is no shortage of sensory pleasure. But the festival being the festival, you can also make a case for an opposite theory – that what audiences hunger for is to stretch their own imaginative muscles. Tim Crouch, for example, is concerned about art that hands everything to the audience on a plate. His show, Truth's A Dog Must To Kennel, is about the act of imagination.
"I'm not going to paint all the pictures," he says. "You're going to have to paint some yourself. That's a more satisfying experience. I'm making work for audiences not spectators. My work is in opposition to a worrying trend where there is more and more spectacle. With spectacle comes capitalism, comes capital, comes control, comes materiality and all those things that, for me, are not the essence of theatre. I'm making work that is completed in its thinking but very incomplete in its delivery because I want an audience to be the completers."Black Is The Color Of My Voice, Pleasance at EICC, Edinburgh, 4–20 August.Macro, BT Murrayfield, Edinburgh, 5 August.The Pulse, Edinburgh Playhouse, 8–9 August.Room, King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, 13–17 August.Tim Crouch: Truth's A Dog Must to Kennel, Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, 6–28 August.