Seen from afar from my perch in Edinburgh, the decision by London’s famous Globe theatre to part ways with its artistic director, Emma Rice, is disappointing. It feels a bit Brexity: a pained cry from the past, “We want our Shakespearean canon back!” Rice will leave her post in 2018, after being criticised by the board for her use of microphones, neon, and light rigging as part of her sets in the replica Elizabethan theatre.
But it’s no defence of the Renaissance repertoire to mollycoddle it like this. Turning the Globe into some sort of tourist attraction is the surest way to kill it. Shakespeare was a popular playwright in the 16th century, an innovator of his time and his work remains a beacon for theatrical cultures the world over. His writing came out of a London that was international, expanding, full of new people arriving in the British capital, overflowing with debate and conflict. The original Globe was built to house big, rambunctious populist audiences, the very audiences Emma Rice, through productions such as her well-reviewed Midsummer’s Night Dream — described by The Stage as “hot-blooded and hot-bodied” — was recently attracting.
So Shakespeare doesn’t need defending but what about the architects of the original Globe? The Elizabethan carpenter-turned-actor James Burbage who with the help of the polymath Dr John Dee drafted the plans for the original structure. Surely Burbage intended the theatre to be played with, and in? Theatre makers are always engaged in a dance with architecture. “What can I do with this space?” “What can I make within these particular limitations?” One reason the Elizabethan repertoire travels so well across time and geography is that the Globe’s very architecture demanded playwrights who produced robust, tough plays. It’s quite absurd to suggest that their work can’t survive the aesthetics and technologies of contemporary dramaturgy. The Globe’s original architect would be thrilled to find directors and designers continuing to engage in that dance with form some 400 years later.
While it’s always exciting to go back to basics for some productions, there has to be room for innovation and play. Emma Rice was using her stage to play with gender, technology, ethnicity and popular form. So was Shakespeare. In 1592 Shakespeare’s contemporary, John Lyly, wrote: “If what we present is all mingle mangle, the fault must be excused for the whole world has gone hodge podge.” The world is changing — what we thought we knew yesterday about politics, economics and culture is turned upside down. Theatre has to keep up. It has to lead, even. There must be no going back.
David Greig is a Scottish playwright and the artistic director of Edinburgh’s Lyceum Theatre.