So. It’s been over a week since the Emma Rice debacle at the Globe hit the headlines. My first response was anger and disbelief, and obviously, as is my wont, I was ready to blog about it — but then, between seeing shows in Berlin and spending my days in German archives reading through rehearsal notes from 1970s and 80s Shakespeare productions in the GDR, I somehow ran out of time and energy. Now I’m back in Toronto, and Time Out has just published a teaser article about an interview with Mark Rylance that adds some interesting new angles, and I have had more time to reflect, and now have more time to write. So write I will, if briefly and still off-the-cuffly.

I was a fan of the Rice appointment. Not because of the tech stuff: if anything, I found that an unnecessary distraction (more in a sec). But because of her avowed lack of respect for Shakespeare.

I have all sorts of problems with the Globe as an enterprise in reconstruction, and have written about those at some length elsewhere (briefly: it’s too big, it’s making far too many assumptions, it can never account for the fact that modern actors and modern audiences cannot becomes early modern players and punters, it’s way too unrigorous, it’s basically modern English Shakespeare with an early modern dressing, at worst it’s museum theatre, at best it’s conventional rather than revelatory of a lost original art, etc.). As a regular theatre, I think significantly more highly of the place: some of the most memorable productions I’ve seen happened at the Globe. That Cymbeline with Rylance years and years ago, six actors in pyjamas playing all the roles — brilliant. The weird Timon a few years ago, which turned the stage into a gigantic dining table and had actors as crows climbing around a huge net over our head. The (more conventional but still exciting) Titus that was revived recently. But none of those shows tried to reproduce “early modern” theatre: they were thoroughly, unabashedly contemporary. And they did things with the plays: they allowed performance to intervene, to stand on its own, to do something more than stage the text. It’s probably not a coincidence that all the Globe shows I found memorable have been of “minor” Shakespeare works, plays that might struggle to make it into a “Essential Works” anthology.

By contrast, my typical response to “conventional” Globe productions is indifference: I rarely find them surprising or inventive, I am so used to the aesthetic by now that I barely notice it anymore, and the underlying spirit all too often is the same reverence for the text that informs so much of mainstream Anglophone Shakespeare nowadays — the same reverence that deadens so much Anglophone Shakespeare as theatre. (A case in point, frankly: the much-celebrated Twelfth Night hilariously hailed as a “highly original” staging in a recent Wall Street Journal article about the Rice debacle.)

A 2008 production of Merry Wives at the Globe. Those are artificial lights, by the way. And that's not the normal Globe stage. Photo by John Tramper.

A 2008 production of Merry Wives at the Globe. Those are artificial lights, by the way. And that’s not the normal Globe stage. Photo by John Tramper.

So: I for one was thrilled to hear that Emma Rice didn’t care all that much for Shakespeare, and was more interested in creating exciting theatrical events. And I didn’t feel that way simply because of a natural sympathy for iconoclastic positions. Primarily, I thought hers was an attitude that might actually allow the Globe to do something closer to reproducing the spirit (if not the form) of early modern theatre. Because if there is one thing we can be sure of it’s that our modern reverence for texts and authors is a titanic anachronism when dealing with early modern plays. It’s anachronistic enough to try and reproduce Shakespearean staging conditions by outfitting actors in historically accurate costumes of the 16th and 17th centuries, but at least it’s aesthetically of a piece with a theatre that visually tries to approximate that same period. But it’s far more glaringly anachronistic to then have those historically accurate-looking performers treat their lines with a devotion and respect that have everything to do with the historical period that produced the desire to reconstruct, and absolutely nothing with the historical period that is purportedly being reconstructed. If Rice was going to shake that up, I was all for it. Her spirit struck me as considerably more “early modern” than that shaping the vast majority of Globe productions.

The fact that she wanted to install lights and sound equipment — well, I can’t say I was especially excited about that, but neither was I as dismayed about it as many of my academic colleagues. The lights in particular struck me just a bit silly, and when I saw two productions in the summer, I felt my gut reaction confirmed: in neither Rice’s Midsummer Night’s Dream nor in Iqbal Khan’s Macbeth did the lighting design do much. In both productions, the bright sun minimized the impact of artificial light, and the effort simply didn’t seem worth it. Perhaps it’s different at night. But even if so, I don’t think the introduction of a lighting grid is exactly a revolutionary gesture. If anything, it’s a reactionary one, and one likely to lead to a reduction in freedom for the actors — and as such, a move towards the most conventional of mainstream theatre’s conventions. For all the Globe’s aesthetic problems, the fact that actors can move freely on its stage and don’t have to find their light, ever, remains a distinct advantage. Losing that doesn’t seem sensible to me, especially if the payoff is as slight as it seemed to me in these two shows. Sound? Well. I will say that I enjoyed the amplified music in Midsummer. It worked well in the space. It got the crowd going. That’s a good thing, as far as I’m concerned. What I didn’t enjoy was the live mood music Rice had playing for much of the show — it did nothing to make the performance more interesting, and it made it necessary to mic the actors. And that really did strike me as a major aesthetic drawback. Amplified voices are bad enough, in any theatrical setting. (Unless the amplification is used as a deliberate alienation device, or to put the audience in a specific relationship vis-a-vis the actors: that’s obviously a different matter. But miking actors simply because they can’t project properly or so that their voices can be heard over music? I find that lazy. It’s the most depressing of West-End-and-Broadway “innovations.” And don’t tell me it allows for a more natural and intimate style of speaking: it doesn’t really, because it makes for a less natural and less intimate style of listening.) Worse, in the Globe, amplified voices are particularly irritating, because the actors are so close to the audience, so immersed in the crowd; having their voices separated from their bodies seemed to fly in the face of the very presence and intimacy that the space otherwise enables, and that Rice’s own production otherwise capitalized on.

But here’s the thing: the amplified voices irritated me. They made it difficult (for me at least) to connect with the show in the big soliloquies, where the mood music and the words blended into a bit of a mush. But when the microphones were off, or levelled down, that disconnect immediately disappeared. And then the space, despite the lights, despite the floating balloons, despite the modern (yes, amplified — but so what?) songs, despite (or because of) the changes to the text, worked as well as it possibly could: the actors and the audience shared it, they looked at us, we looked at them, Puck made one of us eat a banana, and all was well. And when the show worked, all I could think was that Rice should have gone with the courage of her convictions more, and cut more of the soliloquies — treated the text with even less respect. Given the actors even more freedom.

That Midsummer was not an especially rigorous production. It certainly wasn’t edgy. On the contrary: it was really quite a harmless show — even, one might argue, a dismayingly conventional show in its portrayal of gender and sexuality. For my taste, it was yet another Midsummer Night’s Dream that ignored most of the anxiety and violence that runs through the play. But it was a hugely fun production: a big, fluffy, colourful, ball of candy floss of a show, and clearly a serious crowd pleaser. And in that populism, it was a genuine Globe show — not an anachronistic confection pretending to be a museum piece.

What was the root of that success? It wasn’t the lights. It wasn’t the mood music. It wasn’t the amplified voices. It was a commitment to the theatrical event and an approach that put performance over text. The modernity of the staging had a lot to do with it, too — and in that context, it would have been just weird to have anything other than modern music. So, amplification as such? Not a problem, as far as I can see. From my perspective, whenever this show worked, it doubled down on presence; when it didn’t, it was because it created distance.

Distance, however, is not simply a spatial effect: I feel distanced from plenty of shows I see at the Globe. It’s not that “shared light” productions in an open-air theatre always and automatically bring actors and audiences together. They really don’t. Reducing that distance is an actor’s job — and an amplified, disembodied voice makes that job much harder. But so does a voice that evidently speaks someone else’s words, speaks lines it dares not violate. Reverence for the text functions exactly the same way as a microphone: it may increase clarity (whatever that really means), but it reduces presence.

All of this I could have written last week, and I still believe it: based on what I’ve seen at the Globe this summer, based on what I’ve read, I found it hard to see how Rice’s approach was doing violence to the mission of the place. My hope was that she would realize what made her Midsummer work — and what didn’t. Admittedly, my angle on this is a bit peculiar: to me, the material conditions of the Globe are as much of an obstacle as an opportunity; and they can only be realized as an opportunity if used with a real sense of disrespect and experimentalism. Doubling down on the replica aesthetic of the building does not, in my experience, yield powerful theatre or results of great interest from a research perspective.

But then the Rylance interview appeared, and now I don’t know what to think anymore. Here’s his view, as reported by Andrzej Lukowski: “Rylance’s take is that Rice wouldn’t allow any non-amplified productions at all (in part because it would be physically impossible to take the sound and lighting rigs down in time to allow ‘shared light’ production to run in rep) and no compromise was found.”

I must say that I don’t really get what that means: the mere presence of a speaker, after all, doesn’t force anyone to amplify an actor’s voice. I can see how having speakers hang above a stage on which an “original practices” show is being performed might be a bit jarring — but does it really imperil the possibility of putting on such a show? (And yes, I know, the Globe very rarely does anything approaching real “OP” productions.) Nor does the mere presence of lights dictate that they need to be turned on. But I’m more or less prepared to take Rylance at his word, that Rice was keen to have the new technical capabilities exploited in every show. And that I do think is a problem.

Why? Mostly because the Globe has always thrived on variety. That’s a point that was often missed in the reactionary backlash against Rice: that from the very start of this theatre, it had never encouraged a single style of performance. If Rice was in fact going to enforce a more unified aesthetic — well, that would be a move in a more conservative direction rather than a move towards greater degrees of experimentation. And a move towards a more conventional kind of commercialism. Neither of which I find thrilling. It’s one thing to say “we’ll now be able to use lights and sound at the Globe!” It’s quite another to say “every Globe production now has to have lights and sound!” The former is an attitude that opens up opportunities; the latter is one that shuts them down.

So here’s where I think I stand now: I think Rice was doing something exciting at the Globe, but that something had little to do with lights, and even less to do with amplified voices. I suspect, though, that she might not agree with that view. I think that it’s a serious problem if her visual and aural aesthetics indeed required a kind of setup that reduced the flexibility of the space for other director’s productions. It seems perverse to me to create a situation where a theatre that doesn’t require artificial light or amplification now suddenly employs both in all of its shows (and that’s not to say that such technical means shouldn’t be available at the Globe — I’m all for trying stuff out). I can’t quite believe that the committee that hired Rice understood the consequences, and I wonder if she herself knew that installing the equipment she wanted would make it necessary for all shows to make use of it. If those things were understood at the time, I find it a bit incomprehensible why the committee would have considered her a good fit. If they only became clear as the season went on, I understand why a rift developed, and why the situation unfolded as it did.

That’s a lot of ifs. But it doesn’t seem implausible now, to me, that this really was all about lights and sound — not lights and sound as an optional design element, but as a design requirement. If that is true, then the clash was not between reactionary aesthetics and a revolutionary spirit. It was either between two equally conventional approaches. Or, perhaps worse, between one relatively conservative set of ideas and an even more conventional one. It’s just possible that Rice outdid the Globe’s own aesthetic conventionality.

What’s particularly depressing to me about that angle is that Rice’s mission at the Globe will have failed not because of the actually refreshing things she did, although they upset the UK’s more conservative theatre critics (insist on bringing the plays into the present, focus on performance over text). It will have failed because of the conventionality of her aesthetics (controlling the visual and aural environment, using technology to enhance distance). Ideally, the Globe will now find someone who doubles down on the innovative side of Rice’s work while recognizing that there’s nothing inherently exciting in an electric light or a microphone.

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