Duff Up Your Shakespeare
The news that director Emma Rice is to step down from the Globe Theatre after only just starting. Ms Rice is clearly very talented but her skill set and what the Globe required were always going to be at odds to one another, so why did they hire her? There are plenty of venues where experimentalism can and should thrive in London, but the Globe is not one of them.
Rebuilt as a deliberate attempt to replicate the experience of seeing Shakespeare and his contemporaries, the Globe did not wish to accede to demands for lighting rigs and sound systems. Rice’s production of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ was acclaimed and may have worked better in the theatre, but when I saw it as a live film release it seemed a curate’s egg of a production. I had no problems with the updating, which included wheelchairs and sitar music – all fun. The problem was that it was attention-deficit, shouted and mimed as if we were all stupid.
I love experimental theatre and wish there was a lot more of it. The National’s ‘Hamlet’, relocating Elsinore in a police state and staging Ophelia’s death as an assassination, was brilliant because the director had a deep, innate understanding of the text, whereas Ms Rice controversially said that she that Shakespeare made her sleepy.
But Shakespeare shouldn’t be preserved in aspic. What’s disappointing is that the bard’s canon remains underexplored. For every twenty Hamlets you get one Timon of Athens. Do we have to be familiar with texts before we play with them? There’s hardly a Shakespeare play that does not have a section that needs cutting; in ‘The Tempest’, the comedy bits with Trinculo and Stephano have always been annoying.
Similarly, modern audiences have to judge Gilbert & Sullivan by the ENO’s tired-looking ‘Mikado’ and some old D’Oyly Carte recordings, which leaves the original material unexplored and much of their finest work unseen. I recall seeing a version of ‘Iolanthe’ set against the Poll Tax riots which was a huge hit. In the right hands G&S updates beautifully. The problem is not a lack of audiences for such productions – they always come – but a lack of vision from directors. In Ms Rice’s case it was a case of right person, wrong venue.