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Shakespeare During Covid-19: Expanding Our Theatrical Horizons

Shakespeare pendant le Covid-19 : De nouvelles perspectives théâtrales
Méline Dumot


Cet article étudie les adaptations numériques des pièces de Shakespeare créées et/ou diffusées pendant la pandémie de la Covid-19. Il s’agit de réfléchir en particulier à trois assertions : le théâtre numérique ne serait pas réellement du théâtre, les publics ne seraient pas des participants actifs lors de représentations en ligne, et le théâtre numérique ne serait qu’une simple parenthèse, refermée à la réouverture des théâtres. On montre au contraire que les représentations virtuelles ont mis en exergue les limites du théâtre « en présentiel » et devraient nous inviter à rendre ce dernier plus accessible. Les pièces de Shakespeare sont un terrain de jeu potentiel pour mettre en place ces changements.

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  • 1 Shakespeare’s plays by the National Theatre included A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2019), Coriolanus ( (...)
  • 2 It was the case of the Malachite Theatre based in London, and of the project The Show Must Go Onlin (...)

1In March 2020, theatrical venues closed around the world. Since then, many have reopened, and the profusion of digital drama available during lockdowns immediately subsided, although several offers created during the pandemic are still available. Now that theatres have been reopened for a couple of years, it is time to take a step back and to reflect on the new possibilities that became available during the pandemic thanks to digital theatre. Shakespeare was particularly central for Anglophones during the pandemic, as his works offered a free-of-right body of texts, which artists could adapt in many ways. Shakespeare’s Globe and the National Theatre, among others, made many of their productions accessible for free.1 Several discussions focusing on Shakespeare and his contemporaries occurred on a weekly basis, such as Shakespeare Hour Live, a program created by the Shakespeare Theatre Company of Washington, D.C. Discussions about various Shakespeare-related topics took place, while many theatre companies presented performed readings of the plays on Zoom.2 The Creation Theatre, based in Oxford, offered several live digital plays, among which The Tempest (April 2020) and Romeo & Juliet (May 2021). Not all spectators were keen on digital theatre, but for some of Shakespeare’s fans, it made his works accessible in a unique way. While theatres voiced their concerns over sudden and unprecedented economic loss, going online also allowed them to reach broader audiences than the ones they would have been able to host in their physical venues. What comes next for digital theatre now that in-person theatre is fully available again? What did Shakespeare’s example teach us about theatrical adaptability in challenging times? The intensification of digital theatre during the pandemic triggered many debates. One of the New York Times theatre critics, Laura Collins-Hugues, argued:

Digital Theatre isn’t theater: plenty of people, starved for theater, are gorging on it digitally. But to feel its full force, you have to be there – to absorb it physically. (…) All that frenzy of streamable online activity – the virtual readings and talk shows, the archival videos and topical new plays – is part of keeping the candle lit. But theater’s primary public face wears a show-must-go-on smile, so there’s a weird and self-defeating disconnect, as if being supportive means pretending that these works are just as exciting as live stuff would be. (Collins-Hughes 2020a)

2Starting from this statement, I would like to reflect on three specific assumptions: that digital theatre is not live, and therefore no real “theatre;” that audiences were not genuinely excited by online productions; and that the work offered by artists in this time of crisis was merely a parenthesis, a way of “keeping the candle lit,” which would disappear as soon as theatres would reopen. To discuss these questions, I will refer to examples of Shakespearean productions – although many plays by other authors were performed and broadcast during the pandemic – because Shakespeare’s digital presence invites us to reflect on the specificity of Shakespearean adaptations during the pandemic.

Is Digital Theatre “Real” Theatre?

3Watching theatre from home did not appear with the pandemic, nor did digital theatre: in 2010, the RSC produced Such Tweet Sorrow, an online version of Romeo and Juliet, which took place on Twitter. As Christina Papagiannouli observes, cyberperformance goes back to at least 1994 with “ParkBench,” a creation by Nina Sobell and Emily Hartzell which allowed people in New York to use collaborative drawing platforms and videoconferencing tools in kiosks especially built in the city for this purpose (Papagiannouli 2016, 2). However, Covid-19 productions have forced us to think anew about what digital theatre could be, as they questioned the traditional boundary between film adaptation and theatre. To many spectators, what makes the specificity of theatre is sharing the same space and time as the actors during performance, in other words, the “bodily co-presence” of audience and artists (Fischer-Lichte et al. 2014, 18). This is what Collins-Hugues calls “live stuff” (Collins-Hughes 2020a). However, according to Florence March:

  • 3 March 2021, 133–34.

The question ‘Is it theatre?’ – and a fortiori the affirmation that digital theatre is not theatre at all – appears to be a false question. Rather, this is a new way of doing theatre that does not exclude other ways, and further expands its positioning at the crossroads of arts,  disciplines and media, in keeping with its audience capacity and its characteristic adaptability.3

4Nevertheless, this question should not be so quickly dismissed. Lockdown productions always involved a physical separation between artists and audiences, as well as a temporal one in several of them. Broadcasts took numerous forms: some were filmed with an audience and with a single fixed shot, others used editing and cinematographic techniques to produce their digital recordings. Can these broadcasts still be characterized as “theatre” although no “bodily co-presence” is involved? Jerzy Grotowski argues that many elements, which seem part and parcel of the theatrical experience, can actually be erased without altering the nature of the theatrical experience:

By gradually eliminating whatever proved superfluous, we found that theatre can exist without make-up, without autonomic costume and scenography, without a separate performance area (stage), without lighting and sound effects, etc. It cannot exist without the actor–spectator relationship of perceptual, direct, ‘live’ communion. This is an ancient theoretical truth, of course, but when rigorously tested in practice it undermines most of our usual ideas about theatre. (Grotowski 2002, 19)

5Peter Brook also formulates this idea in The Empty Space: “I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged” (Brook 2019, 7). With lockdown productions, this physical co-presence disappeared. Erin Sullivan thus wonders:

What is theater, if not the experience of “being there?” Of sharing the same space as the actors, of merging oneself into an audience, of enacting the rights of ritual? But what happens when the very notion of “being there” starts to shift, when it is possible to stay in one place and yet move from here to the theater and back again with the push of a button or the tap of a screen? Are we there, and is what we’re doing still theater, or are we experiencing something so different that the form itself begins to rupture, producing what can only be thought of as new performances (…)? (Sullivan 2017, 627)

6Digital theatre has demonstrated that no physical stage was needed to create theatre, that an online “empty space” could exist; but what becomes of the actor-spectator relationship? Some productions tried to recreate a sense of “live communion,” such as The Tempest by the Creation Theatre, in association with the Big Telly Theatre Company. This interactive show went live on Zoom in April 2020, with unique performances every evening for a month (Liedke 2020). The spectators were invited to interact with the actors during the performance. At the beginning of the play, Alonso, Sebastianne (this role was re-gendered female for the production), Antonio and Ferdinand are on a cruise ship, and they are answering questions from the audience, as if they were celebrities on a talk show. The “spotlight” function on Zoom allowed the stage manager, Sinéad Owens, to make specific members of the audience appear on screen, so that they knew it was their turn to unmute themselves and ask a question. At several points during the performance, the audience was asked to participate by clapping, singing, or showing their pets on screen. Thus, each performance was unique given the variety of reactions on the part of the audience. According to Peggy Phelan, “[p]erformance’s only life is in the present. Performance cannot be saved, recorded, documented, or otherwise participate in the circulation of representations of representations: once it does so, it becomes something other than performance” (Phelan 2017, 146, original emphasis). The Creation’s Tempest belongs to the category of performance, as it was streamed live on Zoom and was not recorded to be circulated. Thus, liveness is not only a characteristic of physical theatre: it can also be digital.

  • 4 According to Barbara Fuchs, “if the chat channel is renewed for each new instance, it enables liven (...)

7However, many plays that were broadcast during the pandemic were not live. The Back Room Shakespeare Project, a company based in Chicago which usually performs Shakespeare’s plays in bars, with one rehearsal and no director, created for instance a filmed version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The company used Zoom, YouTube, IMessage and FaceTime to record the play and edited the different videos, before broadcasting the montage on YouTube, where it is still available. Researchers such as Barbara Fuchs have pointed out that liveness should rather be located in the spectator’s experience: through live chats and watch parties on Twitter, spectators have created forms of liveness by commenting on plays together, at the same time.4 What this also points to, however, is that liveness is not proper to theatre. Watching a movie while commenting on it online with others watching it at the same time could make it “live”, since liveness has to do with the experience of the watchers rather than with the medium which is used to pass on cultural content. Yet this extended definition of “liveness” does not shed light on what differentiates theatre (including digital plays) from movies.

8The complexity of the question is reinforced by the multiplicity of broadcasts which were available during the pandemic. The National Theatre’s provided recordings of performances which had been played in front of a physical audience. The Show Must Go Online, a project launched by Rob Myles, offered weekly readings of all of Shakespeare’s First Folio (one play a week) on Zoom, with trained actors and actresses as well as amateurs. The cast read the text from their computers. Other productions used green walls to produce special effects or invited the audience to interact with the play. The video game studio Tender Claws even created a performance of The Tempest in virtual reality, in which the audience could interact with a real actor or actress playing Prospero or Prospera.5 The Public Theater replaced its traditional Shakespeare in the Park with a radio play of Richard II.6 The great variety of methods used during the pandemic makes it hard to find a common definition to refer to these creations. However, these recordings remain grounded in the theatrical genre because of one key element: figuratively, their nature remains limited. Even if the staging is quite elaborate, spectators are still required to imagine and to suspend their disbelief. During lockdowns, artists had to make do with whatever props they could find in their homes and had to adapt to the limitations of platforms such as Zoom. Spectators could not ignore the restrictions weighing on theatrical creation at the time. In the Back Room Shakespeare Project’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the forest was represented by plants in the actor’s homes. Every prop constantly reminded the audience that this was theatre, a world in which they are asked to believe that an aluminum foil sword is a real sword, that a lamp can stand for the moon, bringing them back to Henry V’s prologue and its plea to “piece out our imperfections with your thoughts”.7 Fiction always requires the willing suspension of disbelief, but in the case of theatre, audiences are required to accept the figurative limitations of what is created and presented. As a result, liveness is not what makes the essence of theatre, but rather the spectators’ willingness to accept that what is shown onstage – be it physical or digital – is real for the time of the play, however unrealistic it may appear.

“A show that asks nothing of you because it has already taken place”: participation in digital theatre

  • 8 Data shows that online/digital practices usually involve multitasking. Erin Sullivan explains: “In (...)

9Even if the same label is used to talk about digital and in-person theatre, the audience’s experience greatly differs. Laura Collins-Hugues shows little concern for “a show that asks nothing of you because it has already taken place” (Collins-Hughes, 2020b). Nevertheless, it appears that the relationship between artists and audiences was not absent from digital plays, but rather took on a different form. In fact, the pandemic productions were particularly collaborative and, in some instances, demanded a lot from their audiences. Artists from different countries were able to work together, and amateur players were invited to join professional actors. Online productions thus facilitated engagement and participation. On the one hand, audiences might have felt less engaged than they would have been in a physical venue because they could just stop watching or engage in other activities while watching the performance at the same time.8 But on the other hand, the possibilities to participate in the plays were numerous. Jonathan Blyth underlines how the “Shakespeare Sunday” project by the Malachite Theatre (an international Shakespeare collective based in London), taking place on Zoom, produced rich discussions about The Merchant of Venice:

The event facilitated […] an international, multigenerational discussion about systemic racism that was provoked by an engagement with early modern literature. That the attendees were free to participate from their homes while in lockdown provided further evidence, in my mind, for the remarkable pedagogical potential offered by the medium. (Blyth 2021, 4)

  • 9 The website indicates that “[e]very show is produced, cast, rehearsed and performed in a single wee (...)

10Pandemic productions also encouraged amateur practices. In the Back Room Shakespeare’s production, not only does the use of text messages, of the YouTube chat or of Zoom illustrate the resourcefulness and creativity of the company, but it also invites spectators to do the same: if Zoom, Facetime and a few props found at home may prove sufficient to stage a play, then everyone could take part in their own capacity (performers in the Back Room Shakespeare Project are not necessarily trained actors). In the “Shakespeare Sunday” project or in The Show Must Go Online, the actors were joined by amateurs who wanted to participate in the Zoom readings of the play.9 Instead of being located in an extra-ordinary setting (in a specific building, on a stage built for that specific purpose, in a room with dimmed light), the theatrical experience takes place through a medium that is used every day for work and leisure, to “meet” colleagues, friends and/or family. The interaction between audience and play is necessarily transformed because the play is integrated into a familiar medium rather than being associated with the codes of a specific cultural practice. This familiarity, developed through social media, chat boxes or Q&A sessions with the players, redefines the way people interact with theatre. Lockdown productions offered a time in which boundaries were erased and in which traditional roles could be redistributed. In the Back Room Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the use of Zoom allows spectators to catch a glimpse of the actors’ homes. The props and costumes they use are their own possessions, producing a delightful mise en abyme effect with the artisans’ own amateur practice. This gives a sense of proximity and familiarity to the performance and blurs the boundary between the fictional world of the play and the real world of the actors’ homes. Suddenly, the professional and the personal spheres are no longer clearly separated the way they are in theatrical venues. In the Back Room Shakespeare’s production, the “Most lamentable comedy and most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisbe”, played by the artisans in 5.1, is broadcast on YouTube Live, and the embedded spectators comment on it in the live chat, foreshadowing our own potential participation in the play. The Covid-19 pandemic was a time in which artists had to make do with what they had, but instead of weakening theatrical possibilities, it rather enlarged them, inviting audience members to participate.

11The question of attention is also central when considering digital plays. Can theatre keep its audience attentive when players and playgoers do not share the same physical space? Physical theatre appears as one of the last spaces in which spectators are required to be attentive for two hours straight without looking at their phone. Digital theatre, on the contrary, encourages the fragmentation of our attention. According to Erin Sullivan, “[w]ithout the socially imposed demands of in-person theatre-going – for the most part, staying in one place, remaining quiet, not doing other things while watching – engaging with theatrical performance became a different kind of experience” (Allred et al. 2022, 110). She underlines the difficulty for the spectators to remain fully attentive to a digital play when their homes abound in varied distractions. Moreover, the capacity of online theatre to create social bounds is also uncertain. Susan Bennett notes in Theatre Audiences:

In a publicly experienced cultural event, the opportunity to talk about the event afterwards is important socially. Theatre audiences […] tend to consist of small groups of friends, family, and so on. Reception of a performance can be prolonged by group discussion of all aspects from general appreciation to specific questions to other group members about small details of the production. (Bennett 2013, 268)

12In most lockdown productions, spectators could not see or hear each other, limiting the possibility for the audience to share their immediate reactions with one another and with the actors, through clapping or laughing for instance. They could not meet after the play to discuss what they had seen. Social media provided opportunities such as “watch parties”, during which spectators shared their impressions on Twitter or on live chats as they watched the same play at the same time, but not all of them engaged in these activities.

  • 10 Thomas Cartelli mentions “the increasing remoteness of Shakespeare’s language to even well-educated (...)

13Nevertheless, some spectators took the opportunity of lockdown productions to become hyperattentive spectators. In 2020, the writer Ian Doescher (author of the William Shakespeare’s Star Wars Trilogy series) launched an initiative together with the Folger Shakespeare Library called the Shakespeare 2020 Reading Challenge. Participants challenged themselves to read all of Shakespeare’s works in a year. Many participants also shared their thoughts, complementary readings and questions on the Facebook group “Shakespeare 2020 reading challenge”. Several of them mentioned watching plays online to complement their reading of the text or reading the text while watching adaptations. In these cases, digital theatre allows the spectators to pause the video in order to look for the meaning of a word or a line.10 The canonicity of Shakespeare, the complexity of his plays, can be a repellent to spectators who fear they will not understand the text: with digital plays, Shakespeare became less impressive and thus more accessible. While the question of attention is indeed crucial, digital spectators are not as inattentive and passive as one may first assume. Just like digital theatre offers a different way to perform for artists, it also offers alternative ways for spectators to connect and to engage with theatrical content.

Learning from digital theatre to build a new in-person one

  • 11 See for instance the comments on the YouTube video by the National Theatre, announcing the end of t (...)
  • 12 The following definition of neurodiversity is given by Baumer and Frueh “Neurodiversity describes t (...)

14According to Barbara Fuchs, “Virtual theatre is a genie that will not go back in the lamp – it makes extraordinary new things possible, while showing the limitations of how theatre used to do things” (Fuchs 2022, 132). Rather than seeing digital theatre as a parenthesis and a temporary solution to a crisis, it is also a learning opportunity about how to evolve, particularly in terms of accessibility. Interestingly, criticism about the limitations of digital plays focuses on a sense of loss (the lack of a community, of excitement, and of concrete physical stimulation). One might yet contend that physical theatre has its own limitations too. Spectators with limited financial needs may find that the experience of playgoing is by essence restricted, possibly incomplete, and even uncomfortable. According to Susan Bennett, “the cheapest seats are farthest away, often with a restricted view, and distance their occupants not only from the stage action but from the rest of the paying audience” (Bennett, Theatre Audiences 2013, 218). Digital plays work as an equalizer: each spectator has access to the same point of view, for the same price. For people unable to travel to the theatre, whether because of physical or financial limitations, digital plays offer new opportunities to access cultural content. As the New York Times theatre critic Jesse Green suggests, “A subtler barrier has also been removed, so that people who don’t fit the traditional audience profile — which is whiter, older and wealthier than the general population — need no longer feel unwelcome” (Green et al. 2020). These new openings are an essential part of the pandemic broadcasts. There is no doubt that watching a play from home is not the same experience as going to the theatre. However, these different ways of viewing a play can bring new spectators to the theatre. Live chats and comments on Covid-19 productions have shown that digital plays facilitated access for many spectators.11 In the after-show discussion of Teenage Dick, a rewriting of Richard III by Mike Lew, actors and spectators reflected on how the exploration of disability within the play echoed with the issue of accessibility in theatres today. Critic Chris Jones notes: “Just before we all went back to our couches, it was pointed out, tellingly, that for many disabled people, the experience of being denied access to public performances and shut off at home was hardly new. Actually, it was very familiar” (Jones 2020). Thus, going online meant that Teenage Dick became more accessible to disabled spectators. In theatres such as Shakespeare’s Globe, “relaxed performances” have been developing for some years (Shakespeare’s Globe, no date). These performances are characterized by a non-judgmental atmosphere, in which spectators are allowed to speak during the performance or to move in and out of the theatre during the performance (Disability Arts International, no date). Usual etiquette rules are not at play, which makes them particularly accessible to neuro-diverse spectators.12 One might argue that performances brought to people’s living rooms during Covid-19 made relaxed performances a de facto aspect of these productions. In the YouTube comments about the reading of The Two Gentlemen of Verona by The Show Must Go Online, a spectator said: “I have watched with my Autistic son who does not fair [sic] well in Theatre visits but this has brought the words alive for him”, underlining how digital spectatorship opened new horizons in terms of accessibility. Spectators can stop the recording, leave the room if they want to, comment the play out loud with other spectators. Some theatres provided subtitles for their performances (the Stratford Shakespeare Festival at home for instance) which made the plays more accessible to hearing impaired viewers or, simply, to spectators who struggled with Shakespeare’s language. In The Two Noble Kinsmen by The Show Must Go Online, the actress playing the first queen communicated in sign language while being translated by an interpreter, a practice which is not often seen on stage. Furthermore, online plays are more accessible to people living far from theatrical venues, allowing them to watch plays without having to commute to the theatre and without the cost of a night out in the city. Arguably, this reasoning applies mostly to spectators already familiar with theatre visits, trying to find an alternative to in-person performance. But having a facilitated access can increase the number of plays they will be able to watch. Not only does this enhanced accessibility show the resources developed by digital plays, but it also underlines the lack thereof in physical theatres. Relaxed performances are not, for instance, frequently offered by theatrical institutions. Of course, this does not mean that digital theatre is fully accessible: people without a computer or an internet connection are necessarily excluded. Moreover, as Gemma Kate Allred and Benjamin Broadribb underline: “in the UK, higher income families were significantly more likely than lower income families to have the devices and internet access to allow adults to work remotely and children to complete schoolwork at home when schools were closed” (Allred et al. 2022, 7). This is necessarily also true for online viewing. Even if digital theatre is not devoid of inequality itself, those it managed to bridge need to be taken into consideration. As Ben Crystal indicates:

Accessibility needs to ripple through every aspect of what we’re doing and making; it isn’t just about whether or not there’s a ramp outside your brick and mortar building, and it isn’t just about whether or not the performance is audio-described, sign language interpreted or captioned. (Allred et al. 145)

15To make accessibility part and parcel of the theatre, our digital experience might prove a good starting point.

16The productions developed during the pandemic were a laboratory to experiment with new ways of making theatre accessible, and a lesson may be learned from the Shakespeare adaptation trend developed at the time. The pandemic has shown that, in a time of uncertainty, artists often turn to Shakespeare. According to Pascale Aebischer, this has to do with “the need to group around something familiar that carries cultural capital at moments of crisis”, but also with the free copyright status of the play, the “availability of Shakespeare in the archives of companies”, and the important role of Shakespeare in school curriculum (Aebischer 2022, 9–10). Shakespeare’s digital presence also points to the lack of experimentations with more contemporary and less classical texts during lockdowns. As Laura Estill puts it: “We could look at new playwrights, we could look at playwrights of color, we could look at women playwrights or queer playwrights (…) We could even look to the plays of Shakespeare’s contemporaries” (qtd. in Soloski 2020). This was rarely the case, however. The focus on Shakespeare can be explained by the canonicity of some of his works. If one looks at the way Shakespeare was adapted, a great variety of contents appears. The public theatre offered a radio play of Romeo and Juliet in Spanish and French for instance (Romeo y Julieta 2021) The play intertwined Shakespeare’s lines with a translation of the play in Spanish. A line could begin in one language and end in another. This bilingual version was made possible because Romeo and Juliet is so well-known that even non-Spanish speakers could understand the play. Considering the work of the Creation Theatre, one notes that The Tempest involved a great deal of audience participation, and focused less on following Shakespeare’s text, than on involving the spectators in the experience. On the contrary, their production of Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi (March 2021) or of Ford’s, Dekker’s and Rowley’s The Witch of Edmonton (March 2022) focused more on the narrative of both plays than on involving their audiences. Shakespeare’s well-known plays seem to have offered more flexibility for artists: they can be adapted, translated, cut, rewritten, or mixed with other plays. As Michael Witmore, director of the Folger library, underlined “new media forms are always tried out on Shakespeare” (Soloski 2020). Shakespeare thus appeared as a stable ground on which to experiment with the unusual format of digital theatre.

17At the beginning of the pandemic, there was hope that these challenging times would lead to a renewal of theatrical practices. This renewal is of course difficult to implement because of the major economic losses theatres have endured, combined with inflation and rising costs. However, digital theatre gives us hope for a more diverse audience. As Ben Crystal underlines: “the pandemic meant that going to the theatre became an inaccessible luxury even for the able-bodied. If we don’t work to redress the balance, soon it’ll again be a luxury surrounded by obstacles for the disabled, the visually impaired, the hearing impaired, the isolated” (Allred et al. 2022, 145). Shakespeare’s canon allowed artists to try out new media and new forms of audience and actors’ relationship: his works could also be a tool to build a more diverse and accessible in-person theatre. Because spectators are often already familiar with the storyline of well-known plays, they can be easily adapted and transformed. More than a simple parenthesis, the pandemic has offered new perspectives which continue to encourage theatres to explore accessibility both on and offline.

Conclusion: coming back to in-person theatre

18The pandemic, despite its devastating effects, has triggered meaningful conversations about what theatre is, and what it might become, if one puts accessibility at the center of the dialogue. But rather than just teaching us about digital theatre, it has also reminded us of what we value in live performance. Cultural content is accessible everywhere as long as one has an internet connection: one can watch a TV-show on one’s phone, a play on one’s computer with an NT@home subscription or an opera in the cinema. Live theatre, however (whether online or in person), by offering interactions between artists and audiences, has something truly original to offer. One may add that although in-person theatrical venues are not as comfortable as our own homes, physical theatre might actually be about discomfort, about confronting oneself with other playgoers who might react in a different way, laugh at jokes one does not find funny, or leave in the middle of a play that one loves. It might also be about going out and leaving one’s home and daily occupations behind for a few hours, to be taken to a different world. Even if togetherness can be created online through social media and “watch parties”, physical theatre also offers a specific kind of togetherness, in which one can hear a collective gasp or an isolated burst of laughter, and even though the same is true for the audience of a movie in a cinema, in this case spectators know that actors on stage will have heard their reactions. As theatres still struggle to fill their venues, digital plays point at what makes physical theatre special and emphasize the need to continue working on its accessibility.

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1 Shakespeare’s plays by the National Theatre included A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2019), Coriolanus (2014), Twelfth Night (2017) and Anthony and Cleopatra (2018).

2 It was the case of the Malachite Theatre based in London, and of the project The Show Must Go Online by Rob Myles (both will be discussed further down in this article).

3 March 2021, 133–34.

4 According to Barbara Fuchs, “if the chat channel is renewed for each new instance, it enables liveness to reside in the audience rather than the actors.” (Fuchs 2022, 84). Pascale Aebischer mentions “virtual platea” spaces, in which artists invited spectators to interact with them. (Aebischer 2022, 60).

5 See, accessed 17 Feb. 2022.

6 See, accessed 8 Sept. 2022.

7 “O pardon, since a crookèd figure may / Attest in little place a million, /And let us, ciphers to this great account, / On your imaginary forces work. /Suppose within the girdle of these walls / Are now confined two mighty monarchies, / Whose high uprearèd and abutting fronts / The perilous narrow ocean parts asunder./ Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts.” Henry V, 1.1. 16-25, Folger Library Online Edition.

8 Data shows that online/digital practices usually involve multitasking. Erin Sullivan explains: “In a survey I conducted in 2016 with audience members who watched a live-stream of a theatre production at home, I found that the vast majority (81 per cent) carried out at least one other activity while they spectated, and often more, including cooking and eating, looking after family members, posting on social media or doing emails and housework” (Allred et al. 2022, 110). See also Madore et al. 2020.

9 The website indicates that “[e]very show is produced, cast, rehearsed and performed in a single week, with just two and a half days of rehearsal […] TSMGO has featured actors from 6 of the 7 continents, and of all levels of experience, from seasoned pros to new grads and enthusiastic amateurs.” For every production, the call for actors was opened and anyone could apply through a google form. (The Show Must Go Online 2021).

10 Thomas Cartelli mentions “the increasing remoteness of Shakespeare’s language to even well-educated audiences” (Cartelli 2019, 21).

11 See for instance the comments on the YouTube video by the National Theatre, announcing the end of the free broadcasts: Relive the Memories: 16 World-Class Productions.

12 The following definition of neurodiversity is given by Baumer and Frueh “Neurodiversity describes the idea that people experience and interact with the world around them in many different ways; there is no one ‘right’ way of thinking, learning, and behaving, and differences are not viewed as deficits. The word neurodiversity refers to the diversity of all people, but it is often used in the context of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), as well as other neurological or developmental conditions such as ADHD or learning disabilities. The neurodiversity movement emerged during the 1990s, aiming to increase acceptance and inclusion of all people while embracing neurological differences” (Baumer and Frueh 2021).

13 All web references last accessed in September 2023.

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Méline Dumot, « Shakespeare During Covid-19: Expanding Our Theatrical Horizons »Sillages critiques [En ligne], 35 | 2023, mis en ligne le 14 novembre 2023, consulté le 04 mars 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Méline Dumot

Université Clermont-Auvergne, IHRIMMéline Dumot is a PhD student at Université Clermont-Auvergne, working on the place of contemporary audiences in Shakespeare’s plays, under the supervision of Professor Sophie Chiari. She is the author of “Giving Voice in Mike Lew’s Teenage Dick: Disability in a Modern Rewriting of Richard III” (La Clé des langues, and “A Contemporary Clown: Richard III on the Twenty-first Century Theatrical Stage” (Pacific Coast Philology Journal, vol. 56 no. 1, 2021, p. 27-40. Project MUSE, She has also participated in conferences, both abroad (PAMLA 2019, SAA 2020 and 2022) and in France (Sorbonne Université 2022, SAES 2023).

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