Blog: The Globe is a living theatre – not a time machine

Justine Malone laments Emma Rice’s departure from the Globe, and says that the Board’s obsession with the past has taken its toll.

Poor Shakespeare. ‘When will my work get the DAMN RESPECT it deserves?’ cries his be-goateed ghost, as the Globe theatre fills with diverse, young new theatre-goers, keen to see his 400 year old works performed for the bajillionth time. Unfortunately for the Globe’s board, commercial and creative success whilst expanding diversity aren’t enough. They want more. From their statement today, announcing the departure of Artistic Director Emma Rice, it seems that they want Shakespeare’s wobbly old skeleton walking back through the door to direct and perform in his works exactly the way he once did. In THE GOOD OLD DAYS.

Emma Rice isn’t a ‘traditional’ theatre-maker, as anyone who has seen a KneeHigh show will know. She is brave, thoughtful, and innovative. She is not to everyone’s taste, but the Board knew that when they offered her the role. The appointment showed an exciting willing to move forwards – to pause, reduce, or perhaps even conclude the era of purely Elizabethan experimentation, to move on and create a true Season of Wonder.

Or so we thought.

Shakespeare’s Globe is a gargantuan academic experiment, begging a single question: by recreating, to the best of our knowledge, the conditions and limitations of theatre in that particular period of time, what can we find out about what the theatre experience was like for both performers and spectators?

I have studied at the Globe, and my research on the impossibility of reconstruction there has even convinced the institution’s own academics that it is, in some respects, a bit futile. Experimenting is worthwhile, but the task will always be impossible. All we have to go on is what historically remains; written accounts, a couple of dodgy drawings done from memory, and clues hidden in the texts themselves.

But whatever we find out, we can’t ever know for sure – because we weren’t there. The evidence can only open the door enough so it’s ajar, and we can peer glumly into that dark world. We cannot reconstruct ‘the theatre of Shakespeare’s time’, because it was ephemeral. It’s gone. We need to be humble enough to know that we don’t know enough – and whilst it’s good to have a whole venue to test out theories in, there’s ultimately a limit to its value.

I want to find out what going to the theatre was like when Shakespeare was knocking about – that’s why I spent three years doing an MA on that exact subject. But we have to balance the value of this incredible building in providing content for pay-walled, academic articles to satisfy the cerebral whims of a privileged few versus performance. Fresh and exciting, different every night, live, unpredictable and totally within the present – the type that school children can go and see, to reach out and touch Titania’s feathered gown, to get splattered with Titus’ blood, to hear and smell and laugh and cry with fictional people from fictional worlds who are malleable, alive, and as relevant today as they ever were.

What we do have today is a beautiful theatre. Not a reanimated corpse based on an unreliable portrait. It is the third Globe: a new space, a vessel of opportunity. In order to ‘respect’ Shakespeare, sometimes you have to show his work a bit of ‘disrespect’ to coax out its true potential.

With Rice’s departure, this obsession with the past has taken its toll. There is a persistent and niggling expectation that in order to perform the texts properly, we have to do just as the immortal author would have done it himself. Why?

Let’s take a look at the statement issued by the Globe Board today.

‘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.’

Well that sounds terrible.

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’.

There’s a lot to be said for shared light productions – myself and a co-director recently utilised it in an immersive production – but is it possible to ever achieve blackout in the Globe space? What difference does light rigging make to audience experience, other than to achieve beautiful effects on and around the stage? The audience still share a space, and can watch each other’s expressions and reactions throughout performances. The same goes for designed sound – it’s not clear how this actively prevents further investigation into Elizabethan sound techniques.

‘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.’

And what an incredible experiment it is. But it is a living, working theatre, not a time machine. When and where do we draw the line? Why must Rice’s innovation be stifled to satisfy the stuffy, upper-class, traditionalist whims of a board which features not one, not two, but THREE Lords? A pattern is emerging. And I don’t like it.

I see the value of Original Practices performances, and I love them. But to limit The Globe to this is an insult to Shakespeare’s works.

Were Shakespeare here today he would, I’m sure, be amused, bemused, and confused by this insistence that his work must be kept, perfectly preserved, inside a time capsule.

Image thanks to Neil Howard