Towards the end of Emma Rice’s recent production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of the mechanicals decides to give us a piece of her mind. ‘It’s a visual concept!’ screams Nandi Bhebhe’s Starveling (for it is She), as the young lords and ladies mock her costume in the play within a play. ‘Why is everybody so obsessed with text?’
This was Rice’s gauntlet, thrown to her critics as she arrived as the controversial new artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe. But Rice, as usual, was tilting at a straw man. None of her serious critics in theatreland have a problem with textual experiment, nor with Rice’s yen for cross gender casting. Yet Rice was determined to set the narrative: she was iconoclastic, courageous, radical, chopping up Shakespeare’s text and daring us to follow. It is a narrative that took hold firmly yesterday, after the sudden announcement that she and the Board will part ways by 2018. It is far too easy an explanation.
Rice was never as radical as she thought she was. It takes little stretch of the imagination to note that Dream is a riot of sexual fantasy: I’ve seen sixth form productions with sharper erotic farce than hers. Erica Whyman’s recent RSC version was every bit as invested in British Indian culture – Blitz survivors emerged, blinking, into the happier dust of the Holi festival - but did it better. It was hardly adventurous to dress Dream’s amateur players as Globe ushers and invite a gentle mockery of both. Glyndebourne, that bastion of the elite, has been pulling such tricks for years.
Even Rice’s commitment to cross-gender casting is behind rather than ahead of the curve. Next week, Glenda Jackson opens at the Old Vic as King Lear; Harriet Walter currently leads the cast in the Donmar’s acclaimed trilogy of cross-cast Shakespeare plays. By contrast, the gender play in Rice’s Dream often seemed poorly considered. Casting the mechanicals as women allowed her to meet her gender quota, but replaced sad male fools with dowdy female fools. That Ewan Wardrop’s Bottom, the only character who seemed to know what he was doing, was now the sole man of the group only added to unsisterly stereotype.
There has been a tone to criticism of Rice that is absent in responses to male directors. Not just from professional critics: look through Twitter, and an extraordinarily number of men seem to suddenly have expertise on how to light a Jacobean theatre. But she didn’t help herself. A poorly-worded interview to the Guardian left her defined forever as the director who’d rather listen to The Archers than read Shakespeare. Few noticed that she’d put her difficulties with Shakespeare in context, describing the importance of making meaning explicit. ('Sometimes in rehearsal we come across something and I think: "No 14-year-old from Nottingham is going to work out what that means." It doesn’t mean I cut it or am disrespectful of it, but it does mean I admit I don’t understand it.') She remains a director of extraordinary energy; I gave her one of her better reviews at the Times, for the exhilarating Michael Morpurgo adaptation, 946. No coincidence, however, that it was a modern text, not a work of Shakespeare.
Rice seemed to view Shakespeare’s texts as obstacles to be avoided, rather than challenges to be solved. In a recent production, director Matthew Dunster was invited by Rice to take on Cymbeline. Dunster knows his stuff on early modern drama; his Faustus at the Globe was superb, and he recently revived Love’s Sacrifice for the RSC, though in that case he didn’t get to grips with the play’s misogyny. Working with Rice, he reworked Cymbeline to put Imogen, the play’s heroine, centre stage. Like many of Shakespeare’s women, Imogen drifts into an awkward silence in the final scene, assumed to be content with a ‘happy ending’ arranged for her by men. She reunites with Posthumous, the husband who has ordered her honour killing (after Trumpesque ‘locker room talk’ has abusive consequences). So Dunster provided a new speech for Maddie Hill’s Imogen, confronting in modern terms a man foolish enough to bet on her body. It was gloriously well intentioned and utterly jarring. Where other productions have emphasized Imogen’s taciturnity, registering their own protest in her clear reluctance, Imogen Reclaimed let Shakespeare off the hook. Why probe a Jacobean playwright’s blindspots if you can just rewrite them?
These are the quibbles appropriate to theatre criticism – a discipline which normally enjoins us to dispute and engage with a director’s work, rather than demand her head after a bad first season. To see a director leave so swiftly after bad reviews is unusual (and not everybody agrees with the Times, or with me – see Fiona Mountford of the Evening Standard, or Andrzej Lukowski of Time Out). One of the legacies of Rice’s departure will be a worsening of the already bad relationship between critics and the industry. At the very least, critics should afford some self-reflection. When an institution’s director heads in the wrong direction – or so we think – what is our end goal? Are we there to nudge and persuade her into changing course? Or are we hacks demanding a scalp?
Ironically, the last time I made my case against Emma Rice’s Dream, I was fiercely argued down by my companion – a member of the Globe’s Board. Even in private, well after last month’s supposedly ‘stormy’ board meeting, members of the Globe’s Board have passionately defended Rice’s radicalism, though they had little say in her appointment. It includes women like Jenny Topper, the hard-left former head of the Hampstead Theatre, who has also defended Rufus Norris against conservative critics at the National; or Professor Laurie Maguire, whose academic work is feminist to her core. Mutterings have been heard about private donors enforcing traditionalism at chequebook point. I can’t speak for all of them, but Iraj Ispahani, the Parsi-Bengali tea-heir who has fundraised for the Globe since the days of Sam Wanamaker, and now acts as vice chairman, is a man utterly dedicated to opening up Shakespeare to global and non-white audiences. These are not your guilty line up of middle-aged white men.
Few will give them such credit. Rice’s narrative – of a progressive, betrayed – had taken hold on Twitter within an hour of the news release. Traditionalists, too, have jumped on it, citing it as a victory. But like most crises, this sounds more like interpersonal failure than culture war. Whatever went wrong, went wrong recently. An announcement was made to Globe staff yesterday morning only as the press office were hitting ‘send’ on the press release. There is talk of resignations from the board.
Perhaps Rice’s use of modern lights and microphones was – as suggested in the release – a crunch point. The Globe was built to allow directors and researchers to play with the unique acoustics and natural light. More crucially, the Globe has just invested a great deal of capital in building an indoor winter theatre, designed to allow directors to explore Jacobean candlelight performance. A director uninterested in using it for such a purpose would seem particularly ungracious to a board who had exhaustively fundraised for it.
Yet was this not discussed during Rice’s recruitment? The Globe appointed her, and until very recently, they still backed her. It was not her politics, nor her experimentalism, that changed. Split or united, the board now face the difficult task of finding a replacement. If they want to prove Rice’s defenders wrong – and reaffirm they’re on the side of living theatre – they should look for someone who is every bit as much a firebrand. Just check they understand that Shakespeare’s texts are radical, too.