Jennifer Ward-Lealand and Rena Owen in rehearsal for Two Ladies on a computer screen
Jennifer Ward-Lealand and Rena Owen in rehearsal for Two Ladies (Photo: Auckland Theatre Company/Getty Images)

Glimpsing normal life from a parallel universe

Nancy Harris should have been in Auckland tonight for the opening of her play Two Ladies. Instead she’s been chatting with the cast via Zoom from locked-down Ireland, where live theatre is a distant memory. 

It was a surreal moment in a year of surreal moments. I was sitting in my mother’s living room in Dublin, looking into my computer screen where, by the magic of Zoom, I was chatting with the New Zealand cast of my play Two Ladies – opening at Auckland Theatre Company tonight – when suddenly I noticed how close to one another everyone was sitting. 

I blinked, almost startled, the way I sometimes do when watching a TV show that was filmed in a pre-pandemic world; Rena Owen, one of the leads, was sitting between Anna Jullienne (who plays the first lady of the United States in the play) and Ban Abdul, so close their arms could touch, while Jennifer Ward-Lealand (who plays the wife of the French president) was giving me a virtual tour of the rehearsal room. As Colin McColl, the director, talked me through the model box of the set, I couldn’t help but marvel at how no one was wearing face masks. No one was worrying about social distancing. It felt for a moment, well, normal.

Except of course, in normal times I would have been in the room.

Here in my native Ireland, where I’ve been for the last month helping my mother as she (thankfully) recovers from Covid, and in the UK where I usually live with my husband, we are in a full lockdown, with all restrictions still in place. 

There has been almost no live theatre as we knew it for over a year.

In fact, at exactly this time last year, I was in rehearsals for the Irish premiere of my play Our New Girl, only to see it cancelled a week into its run, when worldwide panic about the virus plunged the nation into a sudden lockdown.

It was deeply disorientating to have gone through a four-week rehearsal process with a cast and creative team, to have gotten through the intensity of previews, and the relief of an opening night, only to find ourselves shut down a few days later. The company never got to say goodbye to one another, and the theatre, like so many theatres around the world, has not opened its doors since. A colleague emailed me only last week and mentioned in passing that the set had remained standing in darkness for much of last year. A physical emblem, if one were needed, of the moment all our professional lives ground to a halt.

The strangest part of this story, of course, is that it is not strange at all. 

It is the story shared by all of us working in theatre all across the globe. In silent auditoriums all over the world have sat the ghost-sets of plays that only ran a few days, or shows that have been running for years that have finally been killed off, or perhaps most tragic of all, plays by first-time writers and theatre-makers about to have their first outing, that now might never see the light of day. Life in theatre is precarious at the best of times, but a global pandemic that has kept our buildings shut and our auditoriums dark for over a year has thrown that into sharp relief. 

That was why talking to the cast of Two Ladies in Auckland, as they sat beside one another laughing, talking – in person! – was both surreal and inspiring. It felt incredible to me, sitting in lockdown, that any play could be going on anywhere, let alone a play of mine. But it also felt like the sign that those of us still on this side of the pandemic so desperately need. A sign that this horror will some day be over, and we will be able to be in a room together again, doing what we love.

It’s also exciting because Two Ladies is a very new play. It had its world premiere at The Bridge Theatre in London in late 2019, mere months before the pandemic struck. Ostensibly it’s a play about two very different first ladies, stuck together in a back room as their husbands navigate a global crisis down the hall, but it’s also a provocation on power, both political and personal. It has a deliberately cheeky take on its subject matter for sure, but if we’ve learned anything from this pandemic, it’s that power is precarious. One only has to look at the chaos on Capitol Hill in the United States mere days before the presidential transfer, or the vaccine crisis currently playing out between the EU and the UK, to note the fragile social contracts on which our democracies hinge. 

I’m beyond thrilled that Two Ladies will open in Auckland this week with a hugely talented cast. But I would be a liar if I didn’t admit I am heartbroken that the pandemic has meant I won’t get to experience the play with a New Zealand audience first-hand. One of the privileges of working in theatre is getting to see your work in other contexts and with other cultures, and I’m excited to know what a New Zealand audience will make of some of the ideas thrown up by the play. Indeed, one of my favourite pastimes in normal life is sitting in the theatre bar after any play, listening to audience members discuss and dissect and argue with one another about what they have just seen. These conversations feel like an intrinsic part of the human – not just the theatrical – experience and these are the connections that I have so desperately missed over this last, lonely year.

That is why the reality of New Zealand being able to return to a much more normal life is a source of inspiration and hope that this surreal time might be nearing an end. Not for the first time in recent history, it seems, New Zealand is leading the way.

Two Ladies by Nancy Harris has its New Zealand runs at Auckland’s ASB Waterfront Theatre from February 11-27, followed by a North Island tour

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