Exit, Pursued by a Board: The Tragedy of Emma Rice

Emma Rice
Emma Rice, blown away by a short-sighted board.

Shakespeare’s Globe, on London’s South Bank, is a venue with which I have developed a difficult on-off relationship during my 10 years of living in London. Moving to the city to study a degree in English literature on one of the most traditional courses in the country, Shakespeare was a vital component to the course and we were actively encouraged to see as much as we cold. With £5 “groundling” tickets, The Globe provided an opportunity to see many of the plays each summer with the added bonus of feeling historically relevant, albeit in a slightly artificial construct.

After three productions, two of which were forced upon me by an overly enthusiastic lecturer, I called time on my relationship with the venue. With Shakespeare being performed all across the city from rooms above pubs to the commercial West End, The Globe felt like a theme park attraction where the weighting was never equally placed on the acting or direction. Instead, the material properties of the venue itself seemed to overshadow the need for artistic innovation.

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This past week, following the announcement of Artistic Director Emma Rice’s second season at the venue in summer 2017, my views were reconfirmed — as it was also announced that it would be her last. Having being appointed to some controversy following the departure of Dominic Dromgoole, her predecessor, hopes were high for this self-confessed non-Shakespeare lover. Yet, despite Rice’s public admission that reading the Bard’s plays often left her “very sleepy,” she was given the position. Experimentation, one though, would no doubt ensue.

In a press statement last week, the venue commented that the board had “now concluded that 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 simpler terms: Rice’s experimentation with Shakespearian theatre practises had gone too far.

The board wants an audience’s money, but not their taste

After the news exploded on social media, every artistic outlet has put forward an opinion, from those criticising the venue for succumbing to the chequebooks of investors who are keen to ensure that the venue remains a form of museum, to those who actually questioned how creative Rice’s first season had been. For me, the most ridiculous aspect of this confused narrative came from the very same press statement, which simultaneously concluded that attendance for the season had been high, critical feedback had been strong and diversity in terms of audience had been broadened. To anyone working in the arts, these would seem to be basic mission statements; to acknowledge that they had been achieved yet still throw the baby out with the bathwater seems like an act of madness.

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Since working as a theatre journalist professionally — for more than five years now — I have resisted the opportunity to attend the Globe each season, turned off from one production to the next. Every time I took my cushioned seat on the hard bench, I remembered exactly why I had let the venue slip off my radar — that is, however, until this season. The excitement surrounding Rice’s Wonder Season has fed into all corners of my life, from my work to my studying and even non-theatregoing friends who enjoyed telling me about attending the venue for the first time this summer, thanks to some attractive programming rather than the usual “bucket-list guilt” that brings many Londoners through its doors.

It wasn’t until I saw Matthew Dunster’s reworking of Cymbeline, rebranded Imogen, that I fully accepted the change in audience — and, as I noted in my review of the play, as I left the production I saw crowds of young people literally drawn to the gate by the blaring sounds of Skepta’s music bursting out of the wooden O. In scenes reminiscent of Sister Act, Rice had become the Whoopi Goldberg of Shakespeare, bringing in a new audience who were literally drawn to the gates, curious of what magic lay behind them.

Rice had become the Whoopi Goldberg of Shakespeare

But it seems the board of the Globe cares more about the integrity of the lights than they do about the audience, so it’s back-to-the-drawing-board in search for a new artistic director. I can’t think who would relish the job following the fallout; to take it will surely be an admission that he or she lacks creativity and is comfortable being in the hands of a non-creative board that seems to care, again, not a whit for the audience but for the holy heritage of the venue above all else. It is the very same venue that boasts a huge gift shop and is willing to sell you every manner of creative item, from mugs in the shape of poor Yorick’s scull to quills you can use at home. They want an audience’s money but not an audience’s taste. To pretend The Globe is not a form of Disneyland is to ignore the trappings that come along with it.

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To say that Rice singlehandedly “saved” the venue from itself is obviously a mistake, and there are certainly examples of exciting work from her predecessors — the aforementioned Dromgoole along wiht Mark Rylance. Whilst they may have created some bold productions (regardless of what I thought of them) — Rylance’s all-male Richard III and Twelfth Night both transferred to the West End and Broadway — Rice brought with her a new spirit for the venue, now unceremoniously squashed.

Arguments will no doubt continue around the gender politics, the class politics and various other angles that Rice story can be viewed from, but at its heart one of London’s most unique theatres offers a lesson for all those of us working in the arts — that boards can be completely out of tune with audiences. I find it a shame that my own rediscovery of the venue was will be potentially short-lived. I’ll remain gripped to the eventual denouement of this Shakespearean tragedy.