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.