Emma Rice’s work isn’t breaking the Globe’s mould — it is expanding it.

By Lara Levet, Partnerships Coordinator @ Stagedoor

Emma Rice became the Globe’s Artistic Director in April 2016, following Mark Rylance and Dominic Dromgoole. Yet, a few days ago, the theatre’s Board decided that Emma’s work didn’t correspond to their conception of the Globe’s mission. Her recent productions and their use of a brand new lighting rig and amp sound system were deemed to distract the Globe from its purpose:

“explore the conditions within which Shakespeare and his contemporaries worked”.

The theatre community’s reaction has been polarised to say the least: some vouch their undying support to Emma Rice and describe the Board’s decision as a step backwards, while others have considered Emma unfit for such a traditional venue ever since her appointment. The debate over her resignation poses two larger questions, however:

Is the essence of the Globe’s identity in the traditional representation of Shakespeare’s work? And if so, can that identity act as a barrier to the creative identity of its artistic director?

In their statement, the Board focus on the Globe’s function and its founder’s vision. They explain:

“The Globe was reconstructed as a radical experiment to explore the conditions within which Shakespeare and his contemporaries worked, and we believe this should continue to be the central tenet of our work. […] a predominant use of contemporary sound and lighting technology will not enable us to optimise further experimentation in our unique theatre spaces and the playing conditions which they offer.”

In order to fully appreciate this argument, we must go back to the theatre’s tumultuous history. Initially opened in 1576, the Globe was destroyed in 1598 in the realms of a dispute over the renewal of the lease, only to be rebuilt the following year, closed down under the Puritan administration in 1642, and demolished yet again in 1644. Over 300 years later, the American producer, director and actor Sam Wanamaker created the Shakespeare Globe Trust, and launched the fundraising and research that eventually led to the grand opening, in 1997, of the Globe as we know it today. Its reconstruction was therefore motivated by a desire to re-create the conditions in which Shakesperian theatre was first performed. The use of contemporary technologies can therefore seem like an anachronism, falling outside of the realm of the Globe’s mission. Yet this story also reminds us that while the Globe is a symbol of tradition and a pristine example of a historical reproduction, it would have never seen the day without one man’s eccentricity, passion, perseverance — and very modern means.

Shakespeare’s Globe. Photo: John Wildgoose

By parting with Emma Rice, the Board is attempting to preserve the Globe’s identity. Far from denying Emma’s success (the Board acknowledges she has achieved “exceptionally strong box office returns” and continues to “thrill and surprise audiences”), they chose to protect the Globe from her “mould-breaking” work. The venue is a historical reconstruction of the space where Shakespeare’s words were first performed, and the audience’s experience should therefore be free of any non-essential use of technology. Just as an arts enthusiast goes to the Tate Modern or the Wallace Collection for very different reasons, audience members will continue to go to the Globe for traditional portrayals of Shakespeare’s plays, or visit the Donmar Warehouse or the Almeida to see them in a more modern light. After all, the Globe must continue to do what it was initially created for.

Beyond this seemingly logical decision, 2 elements ought to give us pause: a reductive vision of the Globe’s identity and an artistic director … without an artistic licence.

Julius Caesar performance, 2014 (Shakespeare Globe’s press resources)

The Globe’s identity, or its ‘mould’, is more complex than its use of traditional costumes or its decision not to use a lighting rig. The unusual circumstances of its reconstructions undertaken by theatre practitioners, its Shakespeare-only policy, and its daily exhibitions and tours are all crucial elements of its identity. The magic of the Globe is that every visitor stepping in feels the timeless passion that Shakespeare’s work has provoked in his audience. No other space is dedicated to Shakespeare to the same extent. It is this very devotion and the desire to transmit it that capture the Globe’s identity.

The Globe’s appearance is one of many tools to teach Shakespeare – not an absolute limit on what can and cannot be presented on its stage. In light of its reputation and expertise, the Globe can legitimise modern approaches to classics in a way that no other institution could. By combining a traditional-looking venue with an innovative interpretation of Shakespeare, Emma Rice is not detracting from the Globe’s mission. Her productions show the continuing relevance, if not precursory nature, of Shakespeare’s work, and emphasise the timelessness of the themes and characters explored. Emma Rice’s productions are not breaking the Globe’s mould; they are expanding it.

Imogen performance, 2016 (Shakespeare Globe’s press resources)

More than just a comment on the Globe’s identity, the Board’s decision also has far-reaching implications on the role of an Artistic Director, or of any individual artist, in a theatre’s hierarchy. When she was appointed in April 2016, Emma Rice had spent over two decades with Kneehigh, a leading modern theatre company, where she pushed boundaries both as a performer and a director.

This begs the question: why did they appoint her in the first place, if not to do exactly what she did?

Tristan and Yseult, Adapted and directed by Emma Rice for Kneehigh

This approach resembles that adopted in the corporate world, where the interests of the company as an entity trump that of current directors or shareholders. But is it suitable for a living art?

No two performances are ever identical. Every time an actor says a line, every time a director scribbles on a script, both the play itself and theatre as an art-form evolve. Theatre may never stay still long enough for a mould to shape it. An artistic director is here to both stimulate her team’s creative energies and give them a direction. By committing so unwaveringly to a traditional approach to Shakespeare, the Board is limiting the input that any Artistic Director could ever have. While this decision may well be in line with the Globe’s role as a museum, it is also taking away from its value as a space for living art.