There’s a vacancy at the Globe Theatre for a new Artistic Director after Emma Rice was asked kindly to leave after using one too many pieces of electronic lighting.
The row that lead to Rice’s early departure stemmed from a fundamental difference of philosophy. Rice’s tenure as Director, with her first season of ‘Wonder’, has been one that has used neon lights, microphones, and an array of other modern contrivances. Amongst all that these additions have brought to the productions at the Globe, the most notable is the whimpering of certain second-rate theatre critics.
However the abrasion that met Rice’s arrival to the Globe isn’t wholly unexpected. The Globe is stuck in a looped attempt to recreate the conditions Shakespeare’s original players would have performed under. It’s like Groundhog Day, but if the audience booed at the end when Bill Murray finally breaks the cycle and gets to do something different.
This position is best summarised by the CEO of The Globe:
“The Globe was reconstructed as a radical experiment to explore the conditions within which Shakespeare and his contemporaries worked, and we believe this should continue to be the central tenet of our work.”
This isn’t the most ridiculous of positions to take on the purpose of this theatre, but it is, undoubtedly, a limited one. The idea of chasing authenticity sounds noble, but is ultimately impossible. Unless the Globe’s board are packing time machines in their trousers the original conditions can never be recreated. You can make a decent stab at costumes and, as relevant to this conversation, the lighting, but that’s just the surface.
The truth is that there’s more to authenticity than surface. Like with anything, when the plays were first performed they had nuance about the then-current political and social landscape, and also some great knob jokes. This is especially important regarding the plays chosen in the Wonder season because these plays made people laugh, and comedy is like your underpants collection: it needs updating more often than you would think.
I’ve been lucky to see most of Rice’s season this year, and the best of the bunch was the one that’s been at the heart of this controversy – her production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. What was wonderful about it was that it was an big, brash, and broad performance. I mean ‘broad’ in a really positive way – people were actually laughing the whole way through.
If you’ve ever been to a production of a Shakespeare play, then maybe what I’m about to describe will resonate. When a theatre company doesn’t have a grip on the material, specifically with lines that are meant to be comedic, they fall back on crude physical humour. By this, I literally mean forcing their way through some of the trickier lines by making wanking motions with their fists.
I swear I’m not elaborating for effect here, this is a real thing. The reason this happens is that with a play you have a really captive audience, and that type of basic physical humour will always wring out at least an awkward laugh from a crowd. A laugh is a laugh, and it means you’ve technically fulfilled the requirements of the ‘funny’ bit.
I bring this up because Rice’s Dream never had to resort to this. Sure, there are a lot of bawdy laughs to be had, but they’re the bawdy laughs present in the actual material, just occasionally buttressed by someone unzipping their fly and raising an eyebrow. Her colourful, and crude, direction wrung laughs – earned laughs – from the actual text of the play.
And on top of that, she also found ways to sprinkle in new updated material. There’s a Beyonce number, a David Bowie tribute, and asides about current events. Isn’t this the authenticity the Globe’s CEO was describing? The modernity of the production surely imitates how the plays would have felt when first performed. The audience I was with were engaged, laughing, and had been lead through the language barrier by the performances and production.
The case for Rice’s Dream also isn’t hurt by including amongst its cast the wonderful Ewan Wardrop as Bottom who, if you are lucky enough to be seeing this video for the first time, is responsible for this ever-perfect George Formby cover of 50 Cent’s ‘In da Club’. He had by far the most laughs out of the production and did it all with the material before him – aside from the aforementioned Bowie tribute and a rather spectacular banjo solo.
That engagement with the material is the authenticity the Globe has been chasing. The critics of this season and the board of the Globe itself have blinded themselves to their goal by draping tunics over their eyes. The Globe by all means should be about the conditions that Shakespeare and his contemporaries worked in, but the only way to capture that feeling of the exciting and new is by allowing, maybe even just on occasional seasons, some modernity to seep in. Even if that modernity comes in the form of neon lights and microphones.
Despite the Globe and Rice parting ways, she still has the Summer 2017 before she’s finished her innings at the theatre. Rice is herself directing a production of Twelfth Night, and I can guarantee that you won’t want to miss it.
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