Shakespeare’s Globe yesterday released a baffling public statement. It praised Emma Rice, its new artistic director, for the creative, critical and commercial success of her first season, her achievement in attracting new, diverse audiences. And then it sacked her. Rice will lead one more season, and then she goes – taking, the open-air theatre has decreed, her ‘designed sound and light rigging’ with her.
Yes, Rice has brought assertive light and sound to her season – also, a political edge, a sharper sense of colour-blind and gender-disruptive casting. It’s hard not to credit that these qualities have also disturbed some among the Globe’s council and existing audiences. Another nasty woman is pushed aside.
The Globe’s programming, we’re told, ‘should be structured around “shared light” productions’, to ‘explore the conditions within which Shakespeare and his contemporaries worked.’ We’re back, dismayingly, to assessing theatre on the grounds of authenticity – the least useful, least lucid marker for theatrical value. Authentic early-modern staging, in the 21st century? When artists and audiences alike bring their contemporary selves to the performance, in the middle of contemporary London and its thrusting city skyline? That’s an authentic impossibility.
The Globe’s prime function is surely to make a case for the power of these texts and the stories they can tell. In this, Rice has succeeded big time. Her own production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was the deserved headline hit of the season – bold, irreverent, entertaining, and with an unusual emotionally generous sense of relationship. Matthew Dunster’s Cymbeline (renamed Imogen after its heroine) may have been the gangsta reboot that broke the council’s resolve – but though it scythed back ‘Fear no more the heat o’ the sun’ and had the cast bursting with joy to Skepta, it also told the story with unusual verve and clarity. It wasn’t romantic, but it was a bloody good thriller.
Macbeth didn’t work – but it’s a play that too rarely does. The most radical argument with the source text was also the genuine revelation of the season – Caroline Byrne’s The Taming of the Shrew, which (as I wrote here), took that unlovely so-called comedy by the scruff of its misogynistic neck and shook it till it snarled. Gender and class had the charm scraped off them, and revealed a tough, horrible, fascinating play about lack of choice in a bottom-line world. It will be difficult to think of the play in future without factoring in its findings – and few Shakespeare productions can lay claim to that.
Save us from shouting
As Matt Trueman argues, this decision has to be about more than lighting. The Globe has always lit its evening performances (and I’ve always enjoyed these far more than those blanched by the afternoon’s glare and confusion). Adding neon – even the cheery ‘Rock the ground’ that greeted Dreamers this season – doesn’t guarantee radicalism. But productions which grasp for original practices must work hard to resist a retrograde bias. All-male productions have often been good on male power games but dismaying when treating gender (I don’t miss Propellor’s screeching travesty heroines). When women play men (Michelle Terry’s Henry V, Harriet Walter’s Prospero, the women playing servants in Byrne’s Shrew), they take things far more seriously. Save us from a return to the Globe’s shouty first seasons, horribly coarse and musky.
The statement by CEO Neil Constable suggests the Globe reconstruction was a ‘radical experiment’ and that a change of direction will enable it ‘to optimise further experimentation in our unique theatre spaces and the playing conditions which they offer.’ The candlelit Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, its indoor space, has certainly been transformative for thinking anew about Jacobean drama, its strange and shivery intensities. Scholars will have their say, but the large outdoor theatre to me represents an experiment beyond historical inquiry – an experiment into popular theatre, an oxymoron no more. Successive seasons have learned how to make the groundlings standing in front of the stage its beating heart – building a gaggle of bardheads, tourists, students and newbies into a play’s vigorously responsive sounding board. If being there sometimes felt like confected panto in the early years, we now test, embrace, argue back against the productions. They have become more supple, more sophisticated and more fun with each passing season, and Rice’s season drove that dynamic forward.
The Globe often attracts mixed reviews – the balance between fusty and populist, crude and timid is likely to be more keenly contested than in most theatres – but Rice’s productions weren’t the first to push far beyond original practice. Vanessa Redgrave played Prospero; Mike Alfreds’ small cast productions (of, yes, Dream and Cymbeline) brought the ethos of specific storytelling in an abstract setting that he’d developed with Shared Experience. The stage was thrust into the yard, the marble-patterned pillars covered up. The Globe to Globe season featured a gamut of international companies taking a gamut of inauthentic approaches to the canon.
Tom Cornford has argued forcefully that the criticism of Rice was primarily misogynist. I’m not wholly convinced – but have no doubt that what seemed admirably maverick in the theatre’s previous male leaders (Dominic Dromgoole, an enthusiastic controversialist; Mark Rylance, sweetly wittering about ley lines and denying Shakespeare’s authorship) can still seem beyond the pale for a woman. Rice’s initial remarks about finding Shakespeare baffling and alienating did her few favours, and may have left the Globe’s existing audiences behind – but would they have seemed more charming in a bloke?
That Rice still feels able to programme a ‘Summer of Love’ next year shows admirable optimism and resilience. If Shakespeare productions are once again the ground on which to contest what theatre is for – a backward-looking diversion or an engagement with the world, or as Cornford argues, ‘a culture war by the privileged against those they want to keep out’ – then the Globe’s decision is authentically dismaying.
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