To innovate or not to innovate?

Gemma Sheehan 6 November 2016

“To be [modern], or not to be [modern]” – is that the question? There is no denying the interest and excitement that surrounds new Shakespeare productions, whether it be in the Cambridge theatre scene or theatres in London. So why, when Emma Rice unveiled and executed a daring line-up of shows that pushed boundaries, did she announce her departure after just this one season?

She claims it followed an ongoing argument about lighting and electrical setup on stage. The problem doesn’t lie with the audiences boycotting shows: the box office returns prove that. Nor does it particularly lie with critics: Emma Rice was widely acclaimed. Her season saw Skepta blasting through the Globe, a very forward Puck interacting with a groundling, and neon lighting and electrically amplified sound in every single show. Audiences were quite literally greeted with electrified Shakespeare. And they lapped it up. But critics and nay-sayers cited the “purpose and intention” of the Globe and therein lay the problem.

Typically you might expect gender-bending, physical theatre, and boundary pushing sets from an RSC production. They frame themselves as an experimental company and even have a partnership with Intel as they harness the power of computers. In direct contrast, Shakespeare’s Globe in its modern incarnation was founded by Sam Wanamaker in 1949, and the existing building was opened in 1997 with the aim to reproduce the sound and feel of Shakespeare’s “authentic” theatre. Say “Globe production”, and you imagine period Renaissance dress, an authentic script, and few set changes. Rice did not deliver this. She made radical changes to the script, dressed casts in modern tracksuits and built elaborately technical sets with a microphone for each actor. Actors no longer relied on the magic of the Globe’s design to amplify their voices, but the ‘magic’ of electricity. But was the magic of Shakespeare any less for this? What does it mean to be authentic, and can innovation ever be in line with it?

Authorship was a much less concrete concept in the Renaissance and the concept of intellectual property was hardly discussed. This was the era that saw patrons, those who sponsored the poet or author, able to claim responsibility and ownership of a work. Did the audience care who wrote it? Whether it was “authentically” Shakespeare? Probably not. His name may have become well known and attractive to audiences, but so long as they enjoyed the experience they’d be unlikely to question the authenticity and intention of Shakespeare himself.

Segctions written almost entirely for lesser educated groundlings to enjoy include slapstick humour and comedy amidst tragedy – penis jokes populate many of his plays. Is the addition of Skepta and tracksuits the new stock joker character? To have an institution dedicated to the authenticity of Shakespeare seems to sacrifice accessibility, locking Shakespeare into the box that so many middle-aged people of today resign him to with a sign, “Oh, Shakespeare? I never understood him.” In contrast, watching a class of teenagers laugh and enjoy Baz Luhrmann’s outlandish and not at all “authentic” production of Romeo + Juliet, is to see Shakespeare how it was meant to be. Perhaps the Globe, in their quest for authenticity, are confusing traditional lighting and unmiked projection with real communication and the deep enjoyment of a good show.