The forces of fuddy-duddy conservatism have claimed another victim. The board members of Shakespeare's Globe theatre have taken issue with the artistic choices and methods used by their brilliant artistic director, Emma Rice, whose staging of Imogen I recently went to see. Emma Rice is now set to depart in 2018 and the Globe, no doubt, will settle back into its old ways. This is a crying shame for two reasons.
Firstly, continuous reinterpretation and reimagining keeps the Shakespearian tradition vital, alive and relevant. It also makes for fun and exciting theatre because it is not what you expect. Good art acknowledges its audiences expectations and goes on to subvert them in a way that makes you rethink your own pre-assumptions. Perhaps you will learn something. At the very least you will learn to think about a familiar piece of art, like Shakespeare's plays, in a new way.
What made Emma Rice's staging of Imogen so unusually enjoyable to watch was that it was entirely unexpected. The play opened and closed with highly-spirited modern dance performances by the entire cast; there were hip-hop songs accompanying certain scenes, there was aerial fighting. All this alongside Shakespeare's beloved dialogue and humour. It was Shakespeare in a way I have not seen it done before and to see it staged in the Bard's own theatre was an experience I won't forget in a hurry. This kind of creative exploration should be supported, not stifled. Sadly, Neil Constable and the Globe's board disagree.
Secondly, the board's decision to avoid 'designed sound and light rigging' from April 2018 onwards seems to suggest an attitude towards Shakespeare that is exclusive, and excluding. It seems to say that the only way of interpreting and staging Shakespeare that is valid enough to be performed at the Globe is the 'traditional' way, without hip-hop songs and lighting effects. But surely it isn't difficult to understand that the traditional way doesn't appeal and speak to all audiences and all performers. It shouldn't be controversial to acknowledge that those with a particular kind of background and schooling will feel more spoken to, and more included in what Shakespeare has come to represent culturally, than others.
As I saw it from the groundlings pit, the essence of Emma Rice's staging of Imogen was that it felt as though it extended an inviting hand to performers and audiences who otherwise might not feel spoken to or included in the cultural elitism that Shakespeare has been made to represent. When I went to see Imogen everything, from the cheap £5 tickets, to the wide range of the cast members' accents (Irish, Scottish, Geordie, Mancunian etc.), to the fact that members of the cast were recent graduates of an actors training programme for 'at-risk' youth, contributed to a powerful atmosphere of inclusion.
People were being given a chance to make Shakespeare their own, and in the magnificent Globe theatre no less, who were not usually given this chance. And they were being given the chance to do so on their own terms, in ways that resonated with them. All of this is what I think infused the performance with the energy that made it such a pleasure to watch. Why do we want to take a step back from this?
In hindsight, it makes me all the more appreciative knowing now that Emma Rice's purported aim for her time as artistic director was to make Shakespeare's Globe "the most accessible and inviting space" in London. Evidently, my reaction to Imogen testifies to her success.
This progressive attitude of inclusivity and accessibility is what I feel will disappear with Emma Rice's departure and the Globe's return to the old ways. The old ways, the traditional manner of staging Shakespeare, have their merit. But if that's all that's allowed that will be terribly restricting. And terribly boring. I hadn't been to the Globe for years because, while it's nice every now and then to go and see a Shakespeare play, you know exactly what to expect. Emma Rice's attitude did not only make Shakespeare inclusive and accessible, it also made it fun, exciting and unexpected.
It takes bravery and confidence to allow a space like the Globe, and such a 'British' institution as Shakespeare, to be reimagined and freely interpreted by everyone alike, including those unlike oneself. The decision taken by the Globe's board to jealously guard its traditional manner of doing things and prevent innovation has shown that bravery and confidence are not among its defining characteristics. Rather it represents a conservative attitude that is constricting, boring and retrogressive.