By Anna Begley
This year saw artistic director Emma Rice announce her departure from the Globe. This follows tensions between Rice’s radically modern and stylized approach towards the Globe’s stage and the board’s focus on keeping in line with authentic Shakespearean tradition. It is, as Terri Paddock simply put it, “really disappointing” witnessing the attempt to revive the Bard to engage and entertain a wider and younger audience so quickly crushed by purist ideology. Bawdy, sexy and absurd, Rice’s 2016 A Midsummer Night’s Dream saw Hoxton hipsters, a rendition of Beyoncé and, in a historical gender-bending move, we see Helena become the delightful ‘Helenus’. Shakespeare had become contemporary, fun and indeed a box-office sell-out, entertaining audiences who perhaps wouldn’t have otherwise found comfort in what can be for many an intimidating form of drama.
The theatre is a symbol of liberation and experimentation; whether it’s Marlowe’s homoerotic Edward II, Miller’s anti-surveillance play The Crucible or Stoppard’s tragi-comic take on Hamlet in Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, the theatre has not been shy of causing controversy. For many directors, the theatre is a way of utilising the full potential of the text to create the greatest impact in the context of their audience. For instance, Doran’s recent production of The Tempest saw his partnership with Intel create a unique cinematic experience which amplified the mirage and magic of the play. As Lyn Gardner notes, art is about “reinvention not replication.” Nor should it bow down to authenticity.
That said, there is a strong argument for the purist mode of theatre. There is often a tendency to overlook the beauty and meaning of the text in the pursuit of politicisation and spectacle. Kramer’s Romeo and Juliet, for instance, was described as “engulfing directorial egotism” in its visceral crudity and persistent screeching of what is supposed to be moving, poetical dialogue. Rice’s recent Twelfth Night, moreover, verged on drag musical rather than an insightful comedy of identity and heartbreak. However, that is not to say that directors shouldn’t play with the text or the setting; art is about pushing limits not setting them, and one theatrical flop shouldn’t deter other directors attempting their own vision for the work.
Charlie Kaufman once asserted: “There is theatre in life, obviously, and then there is life in theatre.” Whilst theatre doesn’t necessarily need to be updated to be relevant, it does need to evolve if it is to remain an accessible and exciting outlet for its audiences or risk becoming what Gardner calls “a plaything for academic researchers.” The contextual setting is, in short, a personal preference but Rice’s bold attempt to point Shakespeare’s poetry in a new direction and broaden audiences isn’t something to be condemned, but cherished.
Photograph: S Pakhrin via Creative Commons