Innovation, Orthodoxy, and Shakespeare's Globe

Reporter: Brice Stratford

Dateline: 1st November, 2016

Emma Rice directed a brilliant Midsummer Nights Dream: engaging, sexy, loud, colourful, and (most importantly) fun.

Who hasn't?

It's A Midsummer Nights Dream. Even the worst productions raise laughs, and the Globe has already had two other equally engaging, sexy, loud, colourful and fun productions of the play in extremely recent years—Peter Brook was doing far edgier work with it almost 50 years ago.

Emma Rice is a talented and sometimes brilliant director, responsible for some wonderful productions in her time at the Globe. So was Dominic Dromgoole. So was Mark Rylance. Directing a good play is not the job of an artistic director, nor are good and profitable plays the sole priority or function of the Globe theatre. Almost every other venue in the country has that as their ultimate aim. The (excellent) work which Emma Rice wants to do is work that people are already doing. It is work which can be done anywhere. The work the Globe was built for can only be done at the Globe.

The Globe's statement about the importance of shared light and live music has been shouted down as euphemism, as stuffiness, as a sign that they're scared of radical and innovative work. People forget that in doing away with electric lighting effects and recorded sound the Globe are the radical, innovative ones. How many major theatres in Britain eschew lighting effects? How many only use live music and sound? The Globe fights against tradition by adhering to this policy.

With the lighting effects Rice sought to instil, actors are less able to see (thus less able to interact and connect with) an audience. With the advent of recorded audio, the bulk of the specialist musicians were effectively made redundant, the collaborative nature of the reactive musical performance reduced to pre-recorded audio. When the actors are mic'ed up, every tiny, intimate, personal interaction or stumble or improvisation is broadcast out of context to the entire crowd.

Has a new audience really been brought in? Or has one middle class audience simply been replaced with a slightly different middle-class audience, one that's less aware of why the Globe did what it did and more interested in virtue signalling during a patronising applause over Cymbeline in hoodies? When I saw Imogen (which I enjoyed) I was struck by a comment from the first-time audience member in front of me: “oh my God, that is exactly what they're like.”

Are kids in Tower Hamlets really going to step away from gangs and come to the Globe because Imogen's wearing trainers (and not for the first time, actually)? Perhaps instead of patting ourselves on the back about the latest shallow “opening up” of Shakespeare, we should be questioning the strange, colonial drive to deify this broad concept of Shakespeare and force all cultures and backgrounds to worship it alongside us. There are other writers (some aren't even white men!).

Is it because she's a woman? Many are saying so (or at least heavily implying it). Would the Globe board (which, incidentally, has an almost 50/50 gender split) have appointed her if they were misogynist? No. Would being male have resolved the issues they have with her? No. Were her aims to have more women on stage what lead to this? No.

In terms of gender in Shakespeare, Emma Rice is no innovator. The Old Vic has Glenda Jackson playing King Lear, the National had Tamsin Grieg as Malvolio, Hollywood gave us Helen Mirren's Prospera and the Donmar has been doing all-female Shakespeare for years, the Lazarus theatre company, Merely Shakespeare and Smooth Faced Gentlemen for even longer. The leering accusation of misogyny in this instance is an irresponsible and exploitative insult to actual victims of misogynistic abuse.

In anti-intellectual, post-brexit, “had enough of experts” Britain, it is no surprise that somebody who dislikes Shakespeare, knows little about Shakespeare, and has almost no experience directing Shakespeare was put in charge of the most singularly committed and important Shakespearean theatre in the entire world. The Globe is not a tired orthodoxy which needs to be challenged, it is an unprecedented trail-blazer created at the cost of a life which has only ever questioned preconception and demanded innovation.

Emma Rice was not “axed for being too unorthodox”—she was axed for clinging too tightly to the theatrical orthodoxy that the Globe was built to challenge. The Globe has been accused of putting “the architecture before the art”. This is spectacularly missing the point. At the Globe Architecture is Art, just as much as performance is; the space is supposed to inform the productions, help define them, collaborate with them—the space is not an obstacle to be overcome, or a second class citizen to the elite goal of crowd-pleasing and money-making. Any site-specific theatre maker knows this.

The Globe must be Architecture and Art; Emma Rice picked a favourite child and left the other to starve.