Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Emma Rice's Departure

When Shakespeare's Globe in London first announced that Emma Rice would be the company's new artistic director, I had mixed feelings.

On the one hand, I LOVE Emma Rice's directing. Her work at Kneehigh has been amazing, and her Tristan and Yseult was one of the best plays I saw in 2014.

On the other hand, I wondered if she would be a good fit for the Globe. While the Globe does not limit itself to Renaissance-period productions, it utilizes period staging techniques, forcing actors to project instead of using microphones, and using a general light wash rather than allowing directors to rely on lighting tricks to covey scene changes or shifts in mood.

Rice is known for her innovative use of recorded sound and stylized lighting, and even more so for her aerial work. True, the original Globe lowered actors down from the "heavens" above the stage, but that was a far cry from the bungee chords Rice likes to use in her productions. Was this really going to be a good fit? Just because you love Spider-man and you love musicals, it doesn't necessarily mean you want to see the two together.

This summer, I was going to be in the U.K. for a Regency Theatre Conference, so I figured while I was in the area I would see Rice's inaugural production as the new artistic director of the Globe. She was doing A Midsummer Night's Dream. If aerial work is appropriate for any Shakespeare play, it would be for that one, and Rice's innate sense of romance and theatricalization of the sense of falling in love seemed to go perfectly with the play. This should have been the ideal piece for her to do at the Globe.

Alas, I was greatly disappointed, and apparently I was not the only one. The Globe recently released a statement regarding the company's future artistic direction. Rice will be stepping down as artistic director after the 2017-2018 winter season. According to the company's statement:

Following much deliberation and discussion, the Globe Board has concluded that from April 2018, the theatre programming should be structured around ‘shared light’ productions without designed sound and light rigging, which characterised a large body of The Globe’s work prior to Emma’s appointment.

Yes, Rice introduced high-tech lighting and sound to the Globe, and no, it did not work. The Globe is round, and lighting instruments were installed on each tier of seating, and when lights turned on opposite the seat where I was, I was blinded. Instead of adding to the performance, the lights became a nuisance. Perhaps that wasn't the case with all seats, because it was obvious Rice had directed the play out to the front, and had not spent time to the side of the stage, where I was. Directing for a thrust stage can be a challenge, but it can be done, and the blocking for the show was quite frankly insulting to anyone in the cheaper seats on the side.

I wasn't the only one to think so, either. All of us in my row kept inching further and further toward the center, because it was obvious that the further to the side you were, the more of the action you would miss. I've sat on the side before at the Globe, and previous productions have always been blocked with the theatre's seating arrangement in mind. This one certainly was not. Even worse, while the production contained lots of sight gags and ad-libbed lines that garnered laughs, the actual lines by Shakespeare just weren't funny. A Midsummer Night's Dream is a hysterical play, and the fact that Rice added humor to the piece rather than finding the comedy within it seems to imply that maybe she's best off directing things other than Shakespeare.

Seeing Rice's A Midsummer Night's Dream made me doubly sad. I was sad to see the wonderful space of the Globe poorly used, and I was sad to see Rice's equally wonderful talents also poorly used. Not only was the Globe wasted on Rice, but Rice was wasted on the Globe. The space did not match her amazing and unique talents as a director, and for that, we should blame neither her nor the theatre. On the company's website, Rice recently made this statement:

I have had a wonderful time creatively here at the Globe, but I respect the Board’s decision for its future direction. I look forward to continuing to explore the possibilities of this extraordinary space over the next 18 months, excited to see even more astonishing work unfolding in the glorious wooden 'O' as well as the exquisite Sam Wanamaker Playhouse.

The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is designed to resemble an indoor Jacobean playhouse such as Shakespeare frequently used in the latter part of his career. This winter, Rice will be directing an adaptation of the works of Hans Christian Andersen there, which could be delightful. In the summer, she'll be bringing Tristan and Yseult to the Globe, as well as directing a production of Twelfth Night.

After that and after the following winter, I'm not sure where she'll be going or what she'll be doing, but I'm sure whatever she does will be better than her Midsummer. Rice's parting ways with the Globe should be better for her, better for the theatre, and better for audiences.