On Wednesday, our group saw a production by the playwright who has built an unmatched “historical pedigree” (Fallow) around British theatre when we attended William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night at the Globe Theatre. I was particularly excited for this show, having marvelled at the reverence people around the world attach to a small structure that was built over 400 years ago and stood for barely 50 (“Original Globe”).
Earlier on Wednesday, we spoke to Dr. Catriona Fallow about the primacy of Shakespeare in British literary and cultural identity. The evidence for this primacy is plentiful in London: Shakespeare merchandise sold miles away from any theatre, a colorful Shakespeare mural painted on a side street , and a British Council poster that asserts “Shakespeare IS Great Britain”.
With the weight of a centuries-old legacy and a theatre that was painstakingly reconstructed to match the original 1599 Globe (“Rebuilding the Globe”), I assumed performances at today’s Globe would embody a similar effort to reconstruct the past. However, Cat informed us that the Globe also presents adaptations and new productions. In performing only “museum” pieces, the Globe would not encourage the artistic exploration that characterized Shakespeare’s original company.
However, experimentation can be controversial. After less than a year as the Globe’s artistic director, Emma Rice announced in October that she was stepping down due to disagreements with the Board over “experimentation” in light and sound that deviates from traditional Shakespeare (Furness). Experimentation can also damage a theatre’s revenues; audience members described the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Marat/Sade as “utter filth and depravity” and up to 80 people walked out of the theatre one night (Alleyne).
I continued to consider this balance between upholding legacy and encouraging exploration as we entered the Globe on Wednesday night. As I took my place in the standing section, I heard an usher confide that this would be a “very modern adaptation”. It seemed I was not about to watch the museum piece I expected.
As I watched Emma Rice’s production of Twelfth Night, I decided this production struck that elusive balance between tradition and experimentation. The show, set in the 1970s, features an array of musical genres and choreography styles. Drag queen, Le Gateau Chocolat, appears as Feste, and the company boldly adds modern allusions, such as a verse of Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive”, to the text. However, most of the text remains true to the original, and Rice includes genius homages to Shakespeare’s style. Physical comedy and farce would certainly have been used at the original Globe, as it is in this show. Rice also gives a nod to the tradition of male actors cross-dressing as female characters by casting actress Katy Owen as Malvolio.
Most importantly, the performers fed off the energy of the audience and gave us permission to laugh, jeer, “aw,” and even dance through the performance, just as the original Globe’s rowdy crowd may have done. Emma Rice’s Twelfth Night succeeds in balancing the old and the new while selling out shows for the entire season. We need artists like Emma Rice who are willing to respect tradition, but also push boundaries and make art for 2017, not the 17th century.
This exercise in balancing legacy and experimentation is connected to my research question for the course: how do artists balance commercial viability with artistic integrity? I thought the answer would lie in manipulating business models to make space for new theatre, in finding new monetization strategies to make up for the lower ticket revenues I assumed would accompany new, experimental theatre.
However, as the Globe’s artistic director, Emma Rice has not staged a season full of period Shakespeare pieces to make room for one new show. Rice has combined tradition with experimentation. Perhaps, I need not think of manipulating business and art separately. Maybe theatre can be new, innovative, and maintain artistic integrity without sacrificing profit.
Fallow, Catriona. “A Matter of Life and Death: Shakespeare and UK New Writing Industry.” Destination Theatre Lecture. United Kingdom, London. 28 June 2017. Lecture.
“Original Globe.” Shakespeare’s Globe. The Shakespeare Globe Trust, n.d. Web. June 2017.
“Rebuilding the Globe.” Shakespeare’s Globe. The Shakespeare Globe Trust, n.d. Web. June 2017.
Furness, Hannah. “Emma Rice Leaves Shakespeare’s Globe.” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, 25 Oct. 2016. Web. June 2017.
Alleyne, Richard. “Audience Walks out from ‘depraved’ Royal Shakespeare Company Production.” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, 24 Oct. 2011. Web. June 2017.