In the next ten years, we’ll decide whether theatre is relevant or not. This was the provocation thrown at me in a job interview last month: theatre is going the way of the cultural dinosaurs, as elite and remote as opera and ballet. It’s a thought like the piece of grit behind the contact lens, insistent and more than capable of ruining your day. It’s the thought that means that the Globe board’s decision to buckle to the website commentators and the loudest sneers from the press after less than a season is a big deal for everyone who makes theatre.
I was fortunate enough to be at Tonic Celebrates last week, an event hosted to celebrate the work of women in theatre, held in the candlelight music box of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. Rice spoke movingly about her bewilderment at her critics – it had barely occurred to her that she could upset so many people because her work was so often based on love. Besides, she said, she really had very little choice in what she made. That was her work, she made no secret of it.
It is clear that the board of the Globe – the board that chose Rice in the first place, and you really has to wonder what they thought they were getting – has created conditions in which producing that work is no longer tenable. By insisting on a return to “shared lighting” and an exploration of the conditions in which Shakespeare performed as a “central tenet” of the work on show, the board has shot themselves gloriously and dramatically in the foot. (More dramatically than anything the post-2018 seasons will have to offer, I’d be willing to bet.) We barely need another hot take on how catastrophic a decision this is for theatre, but what artistic director will want to follow Rice? Even contemplating interviewing for the job must feel akin to being a strike-breaker. And besides solidarity within the artistic community – which has come thick and fast in Rice’s favour – what artistic director on earth would willingly sign themselves up to be shackled to such painfully limiting demands before they’ve even set foot in the building? I’d call it a Pyhrric victory, but they’d probably like that reference a bit too much. It’s about a bunch of ancient white men, after all. (By the way, one of the Rice supporters tweeting their dismay was Quentin Letts. When you are to the right of Quentin Letts, you have badly lost your way.)
The arguments against making the spurious grounds of original performance conditions a “central tenet” are boringly obvious, not least that there’s no real consensus on what those conditions were. Should we ban women from the stage? Introduce bear baiting? Sell only pies made of otter gristle and the blood of the French? None of those? Then a decree against lighting and sound is an arbitrary line in the sand. Besides, modern dress isn’t new to the venue (Rylance), nor is playing with the shape of the staging (Dromgoole) or even recorded sound (Adele Thomas’ Oresteia). One could even argue that the venue has always used “designed” sound and lighting, because people made decisions on when it should happen and why and how, and that’s exactly what design is.
The Globe, they said, is an experiment. But experiments have variables. Experiments don’t input the same data over and over again and sit smugly staring at the results. If an argument can be made for the Globe as a special case amongst theatres, its difference visible in its architecture, its actor-audience contract unlike any other, then that is only more reason, not less, for why it should continue to try new things. If you’re going to decide that one particular writer is so Culturally Significant, he gets two major theatres dedicated to him, then the experiment of how to perform that writer is never done. We should never stop interrogating that, and the Globe should be at the forefront. It is the grossest shame that the board, so concerned in their statement with preserving “authenticity” cannot recognise the authenticity of Shakespeare as an experiment – as an experimenter, and one who built on the foundations of the Classical, Medieval and Elizabethan drama that came before him. There seems to be an apparent concern for academic research, yet any worthwhile academic studying Shakespeare comes to understand the plays as a product of a deeply collaborative, un-precious theatre culture, a pragmatic world of re-writing, spectacle, a magic space of non-literal storytelling where gender lines blur, a piece of cloth signifies invisibility, a stick shows age.
The irony is that the productions of Rice and co are scrupulously aware of what has come before: Matthew Dunster’s Imogen built on the existing dynamics of the groundlings, turning them into a thrumming amplification of onstage energy, Rice’s Dream had an audience-immersed table-hopping Puck that offered a comic inversion of Lucy Bailey’s metal towers thundering around the yard in Titus Andronicus. Tradition and innovation are not enemies; they are symbiotes. And besides, if you were really concerned with some dodgy idea of historical authenticity, then options were available: off the top of my head, why not programme one show per season that aims to be as “authentic” as possible? And not the PG-13 slightly imagined approximation of ‘original performance conditions’ but actual historical re-enactment: performed only during daylight, no interval, orange-sellers, audience encouraged to mill and talk – but even that would be more radical than what the board is actually proposing. (They won’t do that though, because it’s not about historicity, it’s about branding and, I suspect, not pissing off certain sponsors.)
And I would just say “fuck it”. Walk away. They had something great and they let it go. The theatrical equivalent of when you could have told someone you loved them but instead said you threw up on their shoes, or when the UK could have told the EU that it loved it but instead it flipped two fingers up, tried to skateboard away and fell over and scraped its knee. I would say “fuck it”, were it not for two things. Firstly, the Globe is the only theatre in London that not only offers tickets for a fiver, it offer the best tickets for a fiver. When you can’t afford to go to the theatre, don’t go to the theatre, wouldn’t consider going to the theatre, but your mate/teacher/family from out of town suggests the Globe because it’s one they’ve heard of and the whole thing seems like it might be cool, you think “Yeah, actually, you know what? I can scrape together a fiver.” So it matters what the Globe provides for that fiver. It matters where the Globe positions itself within the theatre ecology. It matters that for your fiver, Rice delivered diversity – not tokenistic nods but a real foregrounding of sharing stories from outside the mainstream. If Shakespeare is for everyone, then that means making spaces for those who haven’t always been invited to the part, and wouldn’t it be churlish in the extreme for some white middle class audiences and journalists to suddenly declare, say, that they felt excluded from the goings on?
The second reason is bigger, more profoundly worrying. Like a lot of young, left-wing people, I’m getting pretty used to not getting what I want by now. A general election, a referendum, and now Emma Rice (I could have done with Bowie and Rickman living forever too tbh). It seems like exaggeration, perhaps, but the profound disappointment many of my colleagues and I have felt at this news is an extension of that bewilderment over decisions taken in fear, knee-jerk reactions to progress and positivity. There is a narrative taking hold in the UK, of progressive forces swept aside by reactionary ones, of establishment hands reaching down to pat the protesters with their placards on the head and then flick them aside: a tale told of the dismissal of dissenting voices, a nationwide petition to make dissatisfaction treason.
Make no mistake, this is backlash. Full on, Susan Faludi-style Backlash. The doors are slowly opening both for more experimental theatre-makers in the UK, and for artistic directors of the non pale and male persuasion, and while that’s been happening, the establishment has been running round the back to nail shut the windows. My own connection to the Globe is personal as well as professional; I spent much of the last year working there, first as an assistant director on Dominic Dromgoole’s final season, then as a story editor on the Complete Walk. As a young, female, queer, feminist director who has spent a long time with the Big Bard-y Grandaddy of the Dead White Males, I was whole-heartedly delighted by Rice’s appointment. Now I feel like something has been snatched out of my hands.
Perhaps in due course, more will become apparent. For now we are left with the story of a board who couldn’t stick to their guns, a creative, passionate director punished for delivering on exactly the thing she said she would do, and a whole host of new audiences lost once again. It has been said over the past twenty four hours that the Globe will turn into a museum, and that distinction is crucial. I have stood in museums and felt the fabulous, alien difference of long dead people’s lives; I have gone to the theatre and wept for them. Shakespeare was not of an age, but for all time, Jonson famously said. To put it another way, theatre is for the living. Only dead things are preserved in aspic.