Shakespeare Done to Death?

In the wake of the Emma Rice 'scandal' at the Globe, we examine why we keep treading old boards.

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A photo of Shakespeare's Globe theatre as seen from the outside
Photographer: Sourav Niyogi

“Re-invention is important because the only certain thing is change – so the only thing to worry about is how you manage it, because it happens whether you want it or not.” – Emma Rice

Throughout school, English classrooms were filled with the usual complaints and droning questions about why we were studying Shakespeare; why we couldn’t just pick something new and interesting, why we were choosing a different play by the same writer each year that was ‘outdated, overly formal and dry’ and/or ‘crusty and old,’ depending on who you asked. It seems that a debate not too far from this one (granted, for the most part, being had in marginally more intellectual terms) is happening today regarding what we put on our stages, with Shakespeare coming under as heavy fire as ever.

A new version of the USA’s ‘Canon Wars’ of the 1980s is beginning to be played out by critics and audience members, directors and actors alike, as we question whether it is ridiculous to continue with our current obsession with the same household playwright names and keep re-venting them. Are classics like Shakespeare being done to death? Are we being lazy, re-hashing old plays because we’re not coming up with new writing? The answer is a hesitant no – but there’s good reason for the confidence of the answer being vague, somewhere between a Labour spokesman answering about the party’s stance on Brexit, and a Len Goodman “Seven!”

The hesitancy of my ‘no’ comes from the fact that it seems obvious to me that the issues really at stake here are twofold. The first is a ( justified) dissatisfaction with the stale economising of some mainstream theatres (the Globe, anyone?), where Artistic Directors seem to be performing the exact opposite of innovation.

Relying on well-known names and well-established writing to keep their profits coming, they love nothing more than a purist rendition of a classic, and are doing nothing to ‘re-invent’ or re-contextualise it for modern audiences. This leads to boring theatre at best, and at worst, a lack of representation.

What is staged again and again because of issues of economic gain, and a snobbery that manifests itself in contempt for any kind of new approach to an old text, can be highly problematic – when you prioritise the staging of 17th century plays and do not make an active effort to cast radically gender and colour blind, the pool of who we see on stage suddenly becomes very narrow, very white and very male. And that’s not even touching on the actual content of the plays.

On the other hand, social statements can be made through the re-envisioning of a classic story with contemporary recognition of diversity – what could make more of a political statement in the theatre world of America, in its current climate, than a rap musical, featuring a cast almost entirely of people of colour, that depicts the founding fathers? Perhaps this is one of the pillars of Hamilton’s success.

The second issue to be confronted is a real frustration at the restrictive nature of our focus on classics. This potentially blocks innovative writing, created by new voices who are more than worthy of a platform, from taking centre-stage (excuse the terrible pun, it was genuinely accidental). If we continue to glorify classic works, are we stunting the production of contemporary theatre?

The reality is that of course there is no shortage of new writing – at theatre festivals and fringe locations it is prevalent and held up on a pedestal – it is a testament to the spirit of innovation of the festival that means the most recognised award is that for ‘Best Newcomer’ at Edinburgh. Yet somehow, in large-scale theatres there is a love for re-doing classics again and again – pantos, Shakespeare, fairytales in children’s theatre. For me there in no problem with doing this – these titles are classics for a reason: they can reliably entertain audiences and make a profit.

In fact, an attendee of the Brighton conference ‘Starting a Performing Arts Company: the Business Basics’ just last weekend (hosted by The Independent Theatre Council on the 18th of May) discussed the necessity of putting on recognised titles, claiming that for every piece of new writing a theatre commissioned, a known play had to be put on by the theatre to balance profits because new writing categorically makes a loss from its first performance.

The problem comes when we refuse to take new approaches to old works, causing performances to become predictable and stale. Often, this comes as a result of certain theatrical purists wielding the critical knife and threatening innovative productions with harsh reviews or, in extreme cases, a bold Artistic Director losing their job.

This snobbery and purism is exemplified in the scandal which accompanies Emma Rice, the former Artistic Director of the Globe, being sacked just two seasons after she was appointed, when the board who gave her the position had what boiled down to a vote of no confidence – and all because of her ‘controversial’ use of light and sound.

From her first production, what has been deemed a ‘Disco-themed’ A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Globe, Rice caused a stir, bringing in a mixture of glowing and cutting reviews. There were plenty of rave reviews, increased audience numbers, and praise for the new life and classic ‘Globe spirit’ of audience and actor closeness that Rice breathed into her productions. Her production of Twelfth Night was unquestionably the best version of a Shakespearean classic, and perhaps the best piece of theatre, I have ever seen. This featured a drag queen singing live as Feste and an opening consisting of the chorus signing ‘Celebrate’; hardly a conventional take.

Yet there was also damning criticism. Richard Morrison, reviewing Rice in the Times, wrote that she was “wrecking” the Globe with productions of “perversity, incongruity and disrespect”. This harsh review appears to be more a statement of Morrison’s own taste in doing Shakespeare just as he imagines it was done hundreds of years ago, preserving the ‘authenticity’ of the classics, than a personal indictment of Rice’s skills as Artistic Director, however brutal the opinion may seem.

This illustrates clearly the bigger problem faced in theatre production: it is not that new writing is not being commissioned, or that innovative and artistic approaches to classic plays are not being concocted all the time (they certainly are, and they are numerous and brilliant); rather, it is the stubborn attachment of Shakespearian purists and antiquated reviewers, afraid to see their beloved classics presented in a new way, that is stunting the creativity of production, and causing plays to be done to death.

Having said that, and having criticised the Globe for its own disappointing recent decisions, the new Artistic Director, Michelle Terry, is finding success bringing her own kind of innovation and modernity to its stage, as she stars in the eponymous production as Hamlet him(her!)self.

As for Rice, she retains many loyal fans, who remain confused at her dismissal from the Globe to this day (among them, Susannah Clapp, The Observer’s theatre critic, who consistently praised her inventive approach). Nevertheless, in a ‘happy ending’, she is finding success as the Artistic Director of her new company, Wise Children.

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