Playing it safe: the dead hand of tradition

Emma Rice: falling foul of tradition at The Globe

So one of the most exciting figures in UK theatre, The Globe Theatre’s artistic director Emma Rice, has proved too exciting: she’s on her way. The Globe was built in accordance with Sam Wanamaker’s vision of performing Shakespeare’s plays as he would have staged them. But Rice imported modern materials, lights and throat-microphones for the actors, none of which would have been seen on an Elizabethan or Jacobean stage. Far from playing it safe, she chose to live dangerously in artistic terms: in response, the dead hand of tradition has intervened to end her reign.

I have no particular brief for Emma Rice, but I did see her A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Globe back in May. It took a cheeky new look at the play in many ways. I felt that transforming one of the lovers, Helena, into a male and gay protagonist, Helenus was unnecessary: but in every respect her production crackled with irreverent, intoxicating energy and humour, adding to (not detracting from) Shakespeare’s inspiration.

I’m always nervous when going to see The Dream. There are an awful lot of fairies: Bottom and his fellow the “hempen homespuns” rehearsing their dreadful play are so well known as to be clichéd; the furious jealousy between Oberon and Titania over one little Indian princeling is either over the top or plain weird; and the lovers endlessly dripping around after one another in the forest can become irritating.

I’m not knocking the play! But to seize and hold the attention of its 21st-Century audience, a production must do a lot with the script, one which has probably been studied to death in more school classrooms than any other.

Emma Rice’s production did just that. It was irreverent: one can be irreverent without lacking respect for Shakespeare’s work. Indeed, it’s arguably excessive respect for the Bard that’s causing the trouble here.

Sam Wanamaker’s vision of recreating The Globe was inspired and right. But art never stands still, and it would be disrespectful and prejudicial to the future enjoyment of Shakespeare’s plays if The Globe were only to recreate faithfully – no, pedantically – how they were staged in his day. The atmosphere in The Globe is wonderful: but it doesn’t need slavishly to adhere to every detail of 17th-Century performance.

If it’s hard to hear, let’s not be frightened to use amplification. If it’s hard to see, let’s have some lighting. We playgoers no longer smell, spit on the ground, or go bear-baiting after the show. Times have changed: and our interpretation even (or particularly) of the greatest art must change with them.

Haven’t we all sat through plays or operas doomed by a director’s fanciful new take? The Julius Caesar set quirkily in a pole-dancing club in 1970s’ Soho may be intriguing in Act I: but that backdrop becomes unworkable and entirely absurd for the Battle of Philippi at the end.

Nonetheless, we must allow creatives their head. If they produce a poor piece of work, people won’t pay to go to it, and it will close early. That’s the healthy commercial risk, even where we subsidise the arts, as a civilised country must.

Reading about some of Emma Rice’s other productions, I suspect I wouldn’t have liked them. But, even if I had hated her Dream, I’d fight for her right to do it her way, if she could carry her cast with her.

For arts management to demand that things be done in a prescribed manner is as bad as (in my field, education) successive Education Secretaries telling schools what should and shouldn’t constitute history. It’s the kiss of death. If the theatre’s board and managers choose to treat The Globe as a shrine, tradition will become not a benign source of strength but a block to creativity.

We must allow directors the freedom to shock, to outrage, and (when they get it right, which they won’t all the time) to electrify, challenge and (yes!) educate. Playing it safe, hallowing tradition so that it becomes a dead hand, is a surefire way to kill art: no quick death, either, but the slow asphyxiation of control and of stifled creativity.



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