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Features Published 26 October 2016

Shared Light

On the announcement of Emma Rice leaving the Globe, Rosemary Waugh discusses who really gets to share in Shakespeare.
Rosemary Waugh
Emma Rice, current Artist Director at Shakespeare's Globe.

Emma Rice, current Artist Director at Shakespeare’s Globe.

On Tuesday morning, Shakespeare’s Globe issued a press release stating that, following discussions with the Shakespeare Globe Trust Board, Emma Rice’s tenure as Artist Director would come to a close in April 2018.

As Neil Constable, CEO, made clear in the statement, Rice’s first Wonder season has resulted in some highly positive critical reviews, popularity with audiences and a substantial level of ticket sales. Removing her, on this front alone, seems bizarre – you wonder what you have to do to keep a job as an AD if not those exact same three things. But, placing that to one side, there was another (actually more confusing) side to the Globe’s statement.

The end of Rice’s time at the big wooden ‘O’ was occurring because of the incompatibility of her vision with the Globe’s commitment to ‘shared light’. One part of the comments regarding this concept describe ‘shared light’ as being the historical theatrical practice of having actors and audience illuminated in either natural light, or electric lighting mimicking such, so they can ‘see each other’ (the allowance of some versions of electrical lighting but not others slightly devalues the Globe’s overall problem with Rice’s modern lighting design, but again we’ll brush over that).

However, there’s more contained in the same Editors’ Notes (I thought, “I’m an Editor; I’ll read that.”) at the bottom of the page. In this paragraph, a more theoretical explanation of ‘shared light’ is also provided. According to this handy E.N., ‘shared light’ is able to provide an atmosphere wherein the people onstage are playing ‘with’ rather than ‘to’ or ‘at’ those in the audience.

Considering that Rice is stopping being AD due to not being able to conform to the standards encapsulated in the concept of ‘shared light’, the implicit message here is that Rice’s productions do not talk ‘with’ the audience, but ‘to’ or ‘at’ instead.

The tragic irony of this is that the productions programmed during Rice’s first season have done far, far more to truly have a conversation ‘with’ and not ‘at’ or ‘to’ an audience than the vast majority of 400 years of serious Shakespeare scholarship and performances have achieved.

In fact, there is something not only insulting but also highly disingenuous about levelling this accusation at Rice. After all, ticket-buyers, a large number of critics and new audience members have all – as the CEO stated – demonstrated that they support, value and, in some cases, damn right love what Rice has done so far. But rather than engage with these people, the Board of the Globe and others who dislike her way of working have decided that it is best of them to talk ‘to’ and ‘at’ the audience and decide how they should best be seeing and receiving Shakespeare and theatre.

Which brings us to the bigger questions of who exactly gets to control how Shakespeare and other linchpins of traditional British culture are disseminated. It’s hard to talk about ‘shared light’ without recognising the clichéd metaphor of light meaning knowledge. And in acknowledging this, it then seems important to ask: when the Globe claims it wants to share the light, who does it want to share it with?

To help answer this, it’s worth considering who Rice’s Wonder season appeared to want to share it with. Through A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the message was that it wanted to share it with people of all sexualities and all racial backgrounds. It also suggested it wanted to share it with a mixture of cultures through using music that wasn’t your historically accurate Elizabethan lute playing. It then carried this version of sharing into Macbeth directed by Iqbal Khan, a man who has stated, “I want Shakespeare to speak urgently in a 21st-century context.” By also tackling head-on Shakespeare’s most famously misogynistic play, The Taming of the Shrew, it seemed to want to share it with women. Furthermore, the same production moved the sharing outside of not just London, but also England, by re-setting the play in 1916 Ireland. There has also been a proliferation of regional accents represented onstage in several of the other plays. Most recently, the season shared this all-important light with BSL users and – perhaps too shockingly for members of the Board – people who wear Adidas trackies and take drugs.

But above the specifics, the message carried throughout the season was that it wanted to share with young people. In doing so it acknowledged that there is a whole new generation of people out there who have a right to share in Shakespeare, and a right to adapt and evolve it to best reflect the world they inhabit; to delete and evolve the parts now out of touch or offensive to their current views.

There’s an alarming number of people who will bemoan the fact that others (often younger, normally from different educational backgrounds) don’t understand or appreciate Shakespeare. Yet despite complaining, many are equally resistant to sharing the work of the man or other figureheads of a middle- or upper class education. The reason behind this is that doing so would challenge their own position as gatekeepers of a culture and the accompanying privilege of dictating how and by whom this stuff is used.

One way of interpreting the Board’s decision is to suggest that the real problem was not that Rice wasn’t sharing the light, but that she was sharing it too much and with the wrong people. And that behaviour only seems like a threat to those truly living in the dark.

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Rosemary Waugh

Rosemary is the Reviews Editor for Exeunt, and a freelance writer and editor currently reviewing national shows for The Stage.