Emma Rice & The Globe: A recipe that was bound to turn sour

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The arts world has been largely critical of the decision for Emma Rice to step down from her post of Artistic Director at Shakespeare’s Globe, Rice will leave the Globe in April 2018, after programming one more summer season and a final winter season, and I expect to get a certain amount of flack for the writing of this article. Regrettable as the situation is, it was more or less inevitable and it is certainly in the interests of both parties to move on.

The Globe is unique in the theatre world, and was built with a unique purpose: to provide people with an authentic open air, shared light experience, akin to what Shakespeare’s audiences would have experienced. Of course, that being said, the purpose of the Globe is also to attract new audiences and engage youngsters with Shakespeare. Exactly how you go about this is perhaps the major point for discussion. I’m not saying that the likes of Emma Rice’s productions, using modern light and sound at the Globe, should never be performed at such a venue – but it should not come at the detriment of shared light productions, the Globe’s main purpose.

Mark Rylance, the first Artistic Director of the Globe has said that Emma Rice was unwilling to compromise, and her decisions had made it impossible to produce any shared light productions in a season due to her heavy use of modern lighting equipment – this was the final straw for the board, and the reason for the parting of ways. He said “It’s not that the Globe has to be a place where you can only do things without amplification and lights… it’s never been a place that’s closed down what directors want to do. But if one style of production prevents everybody else from doing any other kind – which was what happened this summer – it was impossible to do anything else in there, that was a difficult situation,”

Emma Rice's production of A Misdummer Night's Dream. Photo: Steve Tanner
Emma Rice’s production of A Misdummer Night’s Dream. Photo: Steve Tanner

It begs the question, what is the point of the Globe if it surrenders what makes it unique to the use of modern lighting and amplification? If you take away the shared light aspect, the Globe just becomes like any other proscenium arch theatre: more is lost than is gained. Emma Rice’s productions are visually stunning, and can be enthralling (if not too gimmick heavy and inharmonious for my taste), and nothing is stopping her tackling Shakespeare head on in her own way elsewhere, but the Globe deserves a more nuanced operator who can operate within its founding vision and retain what makes it like no other theatre.

In my truthful opinion Emma Rice should never have been appointed to the post in the first place – let me explain my rationale before I get accused of being either old hat or a misogynist. For a start she had never directed Shakespeare, to which alarm bells should have already started ringing, but more importantly it was like the board had never seen any of her work, or there had been a major misunderstanding when Rice was interviewed. She was never going to respect the bard’s language.

Chop out bits of Elizabethan language in exchange for modern colloquialisms, because you believe Shakespeare’s words don’t make sense to modern audiences, rather than making the language speak to people and you are always going to be in trouble. Presume you know better or can write better than Shakespeare and you’re always going to be up against it, especially at the Globe. Act like Shakespeare is irrelevant, when that is one of the most important reasons his work still thrives, and you are going to upset people. Yes, help people to understand the language, but do it through acting and direction rather than presuming them to be too stupid to grasp Shakespeare’s poetry and having to cut and paste modern phrases into the text.

In her recent productions some of the best lines of the plays have been simply cut or lost in the brash physicality of Rice’s direction. The Globe stage works best when both director and actors harness the power of Shakespeare’s words, use the acoustics of the venue rather than resorting to artificial amplification, and let the audience’s own ‘imaginary forces’ take flight. At one point in her production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Rice had one of the Rude Mechanicals proclaim “Why this obsession with text!” summing up precisely what was wrong with her approach.

“Emma’s mould-breaking work has brought our theatre new and diverse audiences, won huge creative and critical acclaim, and achieved exceptionally strong box office returns. In breaking the mould, this latest season has generated productive debate concerning the purpose and theatrical practice of the Globe, in relation to the use of sound and lighting technology within our theatre spaces. Following much deliberation and discussion, the Globe Board has concluded that from April 2018, the theatre programming should be structured around ‘shared light’ productions without designed sound and light rigging, which characterised a large body of The Globe’s work prior to Emma’s appointment. – Neil Constable, CEO, Shakespeare’s Globe

The Globe serves an important purpose in the arts world, as do directors like Emma Rice and her style of reinvention: but their ideas, and ‘mission’ were at polar opposites. She had to go, and I wish her success wherever she next lays her hat.

The cut and thrust is that despite all her strengths, Emma Rice simply did not understand nor respect Shakespeare or the Globe, and that is why she had to go. Yes, they need someone to keep Shakespeare fresh, but one that understands and respects Shakespeare and the heritage and purpose of the Globe. The Globe is unique, and we’d be much poorer without the experience their shared light productions bring.

There is room for innovation and play at the Globe – but it should never be at the cost of the writing and the language, the main reason Shakespeare’s work is still performed to date. Modernise the language elsewhere by all means, leave the Globe to stay true to the writing: you have to want to keep Shakespeare alive, not chop it into an indistinguishable mismatch of pieces. Shakespeare is timeless, long may it remain so.