Sound … and fury … at The Globe
AN OVERVIEW OF 2016 … so far
Emma Rice is to leave as artistic director of The Globe in April 2018, the end of her second year. Dominic Dromgoole, her predecessor, was there eleven years. He took over from Mark Rylance, who I think was there nine years. It’s been a newsworthy, and not unexpected departure. See The Globe press statement.
The Globe is a special place. If you have £10 in your pocket and suddenly feel “I’d like to see a Shakespeare play today” it’s about the only London theatre you can stroll into. Yes, you could queue for hours for the cheap allocation at other places. You would get in to stand at most Globe performances. This is why the reviews of Globe plays here get more hits than any other theatre. But The Globe, exactly as in Shakespeare’s time, also has to rely on those patrons sitting at six times the price around the edges. It cannot ignore either constituency. By people wanting to stroll in today, the theatre establishment immediately think “youth” or perhaps “yoof.” Both unfair and wrong, I mean “people.” It’s affordable for any age group.
The big issue at The Globe with Emma Rice was not her statements that she would move to having 50% women on stage, nor the use of modern costume.
In the end it comes down to shared light (audience and stage are both lit naturally, or in late evening equally) versus lighting rigs and recorded sound. Since the announcement, “sexism” has been cried, but I think that’s unjust.
My opinion is that the Board knew who they were hiring, they knew she was good, they knew she would have strong ideas. Did no one ever discuss her intentions in advance? Did no one say “OK, but we don’t want you screwing loudpeakers into our careful recreation of the woodwork?”
I have followed it all with interest this year. I have commented on most productions as well as quoting critics. I enjoyed this year. I thought her A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which we saw both live and later on TV, was a straight five star production, a phenomenal achievement. I enjoyed Macbeth. I thought Imogen was a fantastic production, but I also think it was the straw that broke everyone’s back. The Taming Of The Shrew had also tried to hide the stage, and suffered from poor voice projection.
In the end, I think her year has given us some great theatre, and no “bad” theatre, and I look forward to her second (and last) year. I think both Macbeth and The Dream utilised the space brilliantly.
However, Imogen really should have been done elsewhere … if it had been at The National, The Old Vic, The Young Vic, The Almeida, and even the RSC … it would have been an acclaimed production and a universal five stars. It was just wrong to erect a curtain to create a proscenium look, mask the Globe’s fabric, dispense with live music and not utilise the audience interactivity.
The “leaving statement” talks about high box office receipts. Really? When we were at Imogen the pit was half full at best with many empty seats. A lot, really a lot, left at half time. It was the quietest I’ve seen The Globe. At Two Gentleman of Verona in The Wanamaker Playhouse, there was major loss at half time.
The whole departure, with accolades to her from the RSC, the NT and everyone else, is a messy business. The sorrow expressed in The Guardian and The Telegraph is somewhat ironic in that they have the two senior, most respected reviewers in Messrs Billington and Cavendish, and I would say their articulate and negative assessments of Imogen in particular must have been factors in the decision.
But The Globe is a unique space. Many foreigners come specifically to see what it was like in Shakespeare’s day. It can be used traditionally and still attract and excite young audiences. I don’t think you can get a livelier, more involving production than Christopher Luscombe’s Nell Gwynn in 2015, nor Dominic Dromgoole’s Measure for Measure the same year. And I saw that twice. Both were packed. The audiences were young too. Both used the theatre. That’s the point. Another benchmark was Dromgoole’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 2013.
On the “sexism” regarded as part of this departure, can I point out other great recent Globe productions with women directors? Titus Andronicus by Lucy Bailey; As You Like It and Comedy of Errors by Blanche McIntyre. However, the criticisms of Imogen especially, did mention Emma Rice as Artistic Director, and let Matthew Dunster, as director, largely off the hook. I don’t think that’s misogyny, so much as being the top person who takes responsibility.
The 50/50 comment on gender in future plays was mildly silly. Yes, if this had been said at the National or Old Vic, I’d nod in agreement. But The Globe (and the RSC) have a remit to do Shakespeare and his contemporaries. I’m happy with all male, or all female productions. You will never get away from the fact that if a play has 24 roles, only 4 or 5 will be female. You can tweak it with minor roles, and everyone does, but you’ll still end up at best with (say) 16 male: 8 female. Yes, if you’re at the National choose to produce plays with 50% women. Commission plays with 50% women, but it is The Globe, so give Shakespeare’s text some respect.
I know several disgruntled people … they’re all “Friends” too, and I suspect “Friends” are not renewing. They’re not all ageing white males (like myself) either. I did comment on Chichester and The Rose … both criticized for being “too white” … that it’s beginning to be that a white, male actor is severely hampered in his career now, indeed discriminated against in casting.
Another issue was the disappearance of so many fine Globe regular actors from this year’s productions. Why?
So what I’ve done here is reprint extracts from this year’s Globe reviews with my rating and my comments on the shared light v electronics issue, and some press extracts.
There’s no doubt that the fabric of the building will be marred by screw holes in the woodwork when they revert … a good reason not to have screwed all those speakers in.
In the end, the theatrical establishment is rallying in support of Emma Rice. She tried for a younger audience, but if the “members” are a regular theater-going group, it is dangerous to ignore them. The Globe IS popular theatre. There always were mainly young people in the Pit and mixed audiences elsewhere. In many ways, it is elitism to ignore the popular appeal of Shakesperean era costume, and recreating the mood of the time. It HAS been popular throughout its two decades. Judging by empty seats, walkouts, disgruntled “friends” this year, she may have pleased the theatrical community, she may have pleased us (she certainly did) but what she was doing WAS elitist.
A return to coach parties, foreign students, provincial visitors to London is indeed populist.
So extracts from my reviews …
Directed by Caroline Byrne
Globe stage swathed in black
This plays with an all-Irish company, marking the centenary of the Easter Rising of 1916, and remembering women’s role in the independence struggle. It moves towards a 50 / 50 gender split, though cannot achieve it. Hence it requires a dramaturg, or adaptor. Emma Rice’s regime as artistic director of the Globe thus features two plays with modern dress and gender switches. Nothing wrong with either at the National or RSC, but I do think it undermines the raison d’etre of The Globe, which is why so many people flock from all corners of the Globe to experience a play there. One novel one plus one traditional, fine. With Midsummer Night’s Dream playing alongside it, that’s two novel ones on at the same time though. If, as many people do, you’ve planned a Globe visit as part of your British vacation, you will almost certainly want to see one Renaissance costumed play.
You have to consider imposed concepts. Take the 2012 RSC production of The Taming Of The Shrew. That was set in a Cinema Paradiso style small Italian town in the late 1940s. Good fit, because the original is set in a small Italian town. The Easter Rising is a concept, but is The Taming of The Shrew really about a national independence struggle and taking over the central post office? I also wonder about The Globe’s policy of moving to a 50/50 gender split in future. Yes, impose that on the National or the Old Vic and then choose the plays to fit. But Sam Wanamaker built The Globe to play Shakespeare, and unfortunately the originals have 3 to 5 women in a cast of 20 to 24. Quite often, it doesn’t matter in minor parts, and that’s the way they boost it here.
In fact it had nothing to do with the Easter Rising, it was simply “Irish early 20 th century” though the programme notes make it clear that it was based on the promises of female equality in the Irish independence struggle, that is the promises that were never kept.
All that talk of the Easter Rising in publicity gave me doubts about its fidelity, but it was another excellent Globe production. I guess Northern Broadsides “The Merry Wives” had meant two Shakespeare in Peaky Blinders costumes in a week, though this one had a circus / comedy edge.
Directed by Emma Rice
I read the reviews. A four star consensus, but I still went in with lingering doubts about Emma Rice’s production in my mind. A lighting plot? A PA system? Microphones? An electric band? Text changes? Added lines? Humph, I thought. Where do you stop? If the shape and atmosphere of the theatre is the only thing that makes it The Globe, why not put in comfortable seats in the galleries? Let’s get rid of that flaking white limewash that gets onto your clothes. A nice bit of fibre board over those exposed oak beams, perhaps? Hell, let’s put a perspex roof over the lot, central heating, and play it 12 months a year. I don’t believe that’s what Sam Wanamaker intended.
It took around 30 seconds for all doubts to fly out through the (still) open roof and I was spellbound. If there’s a Shakespeare play you can play around with, it’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I saw the Peter Brooks production with the cast on trapezes, and twin drummers, up above the set punctuating the lines. One apparently was the great jazz drummer, Phil Seaman. Then I saw the John Caird production with Richard McCabe as Puck, in Just William schoolboy clothes with fairy wings, working off a junk heap, and David Troughton as Bottom. The Dream is made for radical theatrical innovation. It gets it in this production. My companion saw those too, and deemed Emma Rice’s 2016 production the best she’s ever seen. I’ll be more temperate, and just say it has equal impact to the Peter Brooks and John Caird. I’d also not downgrade this year’s RSC production (which has more magical magic, and sharper text focus). I reckon that’s two five star productions of the Dream in a year.
BUT WHAT THE PAPERS SAY AND SOME EXTRA THOUGHTS …
The Sunday Times noted a problem with coherence … I guess an assumption that you could improvise because everyone knows the tune anyway. There’s an air of elitism in that. Is it “bringing Shakespeare to everyone”? Or is it playing to an educated crowd who know it enough to appreciate the changes? The Sunday Times compared Filter’s anarchic production, and said even that was more coherent in plot than Emma Rice’s production. I know the problem … Filter’s Twelfth Night was hilarious but incoherent in combining Viola and Sebastian if you didn’t know the play. I’ll refute that totally for this Dream. I was expecting some incoherence in plot because of that review and I detected none.
So Athens becomes London. There are a few additions. Years ago, Mark Rylance (Rita Quince says Mark Rylance, the first artistic director of The Globe, gave her the tambourine she carries) pointed out that Shakespeare’s comic actors were the great comedians of the day. They would certainly have improvised action, crowd repartee and slipped in topical references. Definitely authentic to shift words.
BUT SAY IT’S ALL LIKE THIS …
Most of my readers and correspondents are from outside the UK, and I know how much the chance of seeing Shakespeare in a near original setting means to them. Shakespeare almost certainly didn’t use medieval Scottish garb for Macbeth, or pre-Saxon gear for Lear, and no more than the odd token toga for Roman plays. The Elizabethans played in their contemporary clothes. Emma Rice seems to be saying that the space and setting is the important thing about the Globe and so play it in our contemporary gear. Yes, it’s a living theatre, not a museum, I agree … and yet the people I hear from abroad, do cherish the hope of seeing Shakespeare here, and sorry, they almost all want Elizabethan costumes, or (say) 13th century for King John or 15th century for Richard III. No, the Kings Men didn’t do it that way as far as we know. But I do hope they retain SOME productions which look Elizabethan / Jacobean to please the many foreign visitors.
Directed by Iqbal Khan
We had wondered this Globe season about the absence of “regulars” in the new regime. Sam Cox was in two Wanamaker plays in the winter, but otherwise the RSC connections are stronger, especially from 2015. The other question this year is costume. The Globe website has people enquiring whether the play will be in 17th century costume. Simple answer … no. It’s modern with late 19th / early 20th century frogging on regal jackets, and touches of medieval armour and kingly robes, modern battledress on soldiers. Eclectic? A hotchpotch? That can be effective, though it still leaves the question hanging about what will be in Jacobean costume this year, or even ever again. The Merchant of Venice, yes, because that’s revived from last year. Otherwise, none so far.
Everyone seems sensitive on the issue of The Globe’s new regime. We can assume that it was originally played in 1606 costume, not 11th century Scots kilts and sporrans. The Globe does need to beware that the Jacobean gear is indeed what so many foreign visitors come for.
The other current issue at the Globe is the use of technology. This has recorded sound, overhead strobe flashes for thunder, some recorded music pieces supplementing the live band. There’s wrought ironwork over the rear and surrounding the pillars. Black industrial iron boxes form thrones and seats. On the other hand the use of puppets, and the ghost of Banquo, which had him rising from the stage trap under a black cloth, was within the technical capabilities of 1606.
We liked it more than the proper press, who were harsh. The reviews from the major newspapers had an enormous range. Looking at the several strong negatives, I see references to a “three hour production.” Well, it started 1 pm, had a twenty minute interval, and ended at ten to four. I make that a two and a half hour production. On the way in we were warned “the first half is one hour forty minutes” (This is the if you need a pee, have it now warning) but it ended at two thirty, ten minutes shorter. As no one appeared to be racing their lines, I’m guessing there were quite severe cuts, possibly after press night.
We felt it had the necessary Globe magic, and the huge and long applause at the end in the sunshine surely compensates the cast for what critics say.
* * * * (4 stars)
WHAT THE PAPERS SAID
- Neil Norman in The Daily Express gives it one star, calls it atrocious, and says “it’s one of the worst productions of Macbeth I’ve ever seen.” Hmm, you’ve led a sheltered life. I once saw Macbeth done with a cast of three.
- Switch to The Independent and David Lister rates it as five stars, and adds:
- No caveats can really distract from such a thrilling, beautifully spoken production, with the richly evocative music a memorable backdrop to two riveting central performances. This is the Globe at its best.
- Donald Cooper in The Times gave it two stars, and was perhaps offended by the jokey references to the newspaper’s proprietor (Rupert Murdoch)’s good buddy, Donald Trump.
- Dominic Cavendish in The Telegraph didn’t like it either, with a two star review. Like other critics, he was amazed to find four witches (We three sisters …). He says:
- This production should be called Four Witches and a Funeral – the funeral being for a text that’s strangled and battered by indifferent to terrible verse-speaking. I blame Khan. He lets the pace drag, has countenanced an ugly design, and while the loud, Celtic-moody music casts a spell, it also overwhelms. There are also too many notes of jarring comedy.
- OK, but in the original the three witches or wyrd sisters, do meet Hecate who has lines. Yes, they’re often cut … but having four does have justification.
- Michael Billington in The Guardian is usually my benchmark, has seen more than anyone else, and gives it three stars. He was puzzled by the child, hanging around the Macbeths throughout.
- Natasha Triply for The Stage found it lacking in chemistry and gave it three stars.
TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA, Wanamaker **
This must have been designed with the outside festival venues in mind, big, trying to get a “non-Shakespeare” audience enthused by all the bustle and music and activity.
Then you take it into the Wanamaker Playhouse. You retain the candle lighting, which I guess is all you can do, though you spotlight the inner stage with keyboards and drum kit. There in that wooden reproduction of a Jacobean indoor theatre, it felt too big and painted with too broad a brush in the performances for the intimacy of the space …
As to taking a pop version with electric music into the Sam Wanamaker … well, yes, use the available space between stuff designed for the theatre. Put touring stuff in there, though the candles then become a bit daft. But ominously, I counted a dozen empty seats after the interval in the lower galley near me alone. At the very high ticket prices, that’s a lot. The Wanamaker usually does lose a few at the break due to hard bench fatigue, but that’s too many in a small premium area on a Saturday evening. It happens a lot in the West End, where big companies buy up corporate seats for foreign VIPs well in advance (they’ve always got some visiting) and the foreign VIPs leave at half time, not being able to follow the words. But that shouldn’t happen at The Globe or RSC which aren’t part of the same West End networks and sell out to members. I would hazard it was either surprise or distaste (I noticed a couple with hands on their ears in the guitar playing) clearing the seats, but who knows?
IMOGEN (CYMBELINE RE-NAMED & RECLAIMED) ****
Directed by Matthew Dunster
Because I’m going to make a few early background points with criticism, I’ll start by saying that overall we loved this production unequivocally.
RECORDED MUSIC – KEEP MUSIC LIVE!
Up above our heads: speaker and spotlight. Stage behind swathed in plastic
Emma Rice’s new regime was into recorded sound effects earlier in the season. This is a further major move. All the music is recorded. That’s a great shame, and a further nail in the coffin of “live music” in general. The Globe reliably employed several musicians at every performance. Four or six jobs gone. The soundtrack is rap, and you think “Can’t that be played live?” But I guess when it’s samples and drum machines, having a person standing there operating the computer is akin to having a man with a red flag walking in front of the first motor cars. The reggae soundtrack could be played live, but once you’re using recordings, you’ve crossed a line.
I bought the CD of the 2016 RSC production of Cymbeline and have two tracks on my Best of 2016 playlist: Fear No More The Heat of The Sun by James Cooney and Terri Wilkey, and Marcus Griffiths on Hark Hark The Lark. Look! Credits! Real people! Original music, sung on stage. Come on, it’s live theatre! It beats recordings every time.
BUT IS IT THE GLOBE?
Before the show: fully curtained with plastic – the curtains are closed several times … but isn’t that like a traditional proscenium arch stage?
We have curtains.
We have virtually no use of the pit (Maddy Hill exits that way a couple of times).
No use of the gallery or inner stage.
No audience interaction.
We have lights.
We have recorded music.
The columns are swathed in grey to disguise the fact that we’re in the Globe.
Domenic Cavendish in a clear, sharp review says:
I’m not objecting to experimentation and radical interpretation per se; and there’s no denying that this late play has a sprawling quality that tempts the secateurs. Yet such is ferocity of the pruning, in tandem with the grafting-on of contemporary speech and cod-Bardic verse, that I can’t see what this version is doing at Shakespeare’s Globe, or, if this form of hacking about with the canon is to be the new norm under artistic director Emma Rice, what the point of the Globe now is.
Well, it wasn’t full by any means. The night before the 1966 “pop music” Two Gentlemen of Verona lost at least a dozen people near us at the interval. I spoke to someone at Stratford who said she was not renewing her Globe membership after this season (and after many years as a member).
Ian Shuttleworth in The Financial Times says:
The trouble is that one wonders — in what has already become a mantra during Emma Rice’s first season at its helm — what the hell it’s doing at the Globe. Once again, it’s not a matter of snobbery … although, God knows, cutting almost all of the play’s most famous and poignant section “Fear no more the heat o’th’sun” while having Imogen lament her supposed widowhood by singing a Daft Punk number does make the nostrils flare in that respect. But no, it’s about waste of potential. When a production like this would work as well in any space of comparable size; when it ignores the configuration, structure and historical aspect of the Globe (that is, when it’s not treating them as problems to be overcome or hidden in polythene) … then where is the identity of the Globe, and what is its particular purpose?
The conundrum is that Emma Rice is seeking a new audience. She hasn’t alienated us (yet), and we’re both in the ageing white regular theatre goer section. I’ve often thought it must be galling for young actors to play a matinee to what looks like an Old Folk’s Home. I sympathise to the extent that this month I vastly preferred Our Ladies Of Perpetual Succour to No Man’s Land with Ian McKellan and Patrick Stewart. I value the youthful energy and enthusiasm more than the polished ageing thespian performance.
However, that ageing white audience (us) is also the pre-paying / premium seat/ reliable income sector too. We pay for the whole season months before we go and eat in the restaurant when we get there. That’s great for the balance sheet. But I fear she is alienating some of the traditional audience without guaranteeing her bright young hopes for future spectators.
I hazard that Matthew Dunster’s production would have garnered an extra star all round at The National Theatre or Old Vic or Barbican. Even at the RSC, which doesn’t claim to be an authentic reconstruction. But it does not use the Globe stage, nor does it appeal to the reason The Globe exists. It’s the wrong venue.
However, I feel the Globe can take a radical Midsummer Night’s Dream and an Imogen in a season. I loved both. But she really has to be careful to balance these with some text-faithful productions in Jacobean dress, utilising the theatre, which was the original idea of the place, and which so many foreign visitors pay to see.
If it’s all like Imogen, I foresee tears before bedtime.
(LATER NOTE: THAT WAS PREDICTIVE)
I might have gone higher if it wasn’t for the matter of principle on recorded music in a live production. I hope it’s a one-off. What would Ms Rice say if someone suggested, ‘Hey, don’t do Richard III next season. Just play the Olivier version on a big screen.” As I read more comments online, it’s also “not the Globe” however much I enjoyed it.
WHAT THE PAPERS SAID
Our two best-known critics (and they are my first read online) both disliked it. Both Mr Billington and Mr Cavendish (see above) complain about line changes, and of course, both know every Shakespeare play so well that they catch them, and they must jar for them.
Michael Billington, Guardian **
Shakespeare may have been reclaimed but he hasn’t, in any meaningful way, been improved.
Domenic Cavendish, Telegraph, **
Daft Punk are in; yet the beautiful verse following on from “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun” gets lopped. Criminal, really.
Ann Treneman, The Times **
Ian Shuttleworth, The Financial Times ***
Andrzej Lukowski, Time Out ***
Natasha Tripney, The Stage ****
Marianka Swain, Broadway World ***
Dan English, The Reviews Hub, ****
Dom O’Hanlon, London Theatre Co, ****
Claire Webb, Radio Times, *****
The Canadian series “Slings and Arrows” set at The Rose Theatre at “The Burbage Festival” in Stratford, Ontario. Season 1 is backstage around a Hamlet production, Season 2 is Macbeth and Romeo & Juliet. Season 3 is The King Lear.
It all revolves around the artistic director of The Burbage Festival, Geoffrey (Paul Goss), who is haunted by the ghost of his predecessor. Watching Series 2 as this parallel UK drama enfolds was revealing. They’re after a younger audience, insulting the older “members” with a publicity campaign, who then cancel bookings … but it’s much more than that. The artistic director is dealing with multiple productions and so other directors and casts.