If it ain't broke, don't fix it. That's clearly not the belief of Emma Rice, who took over with a bang as artistic director of Shakespeare's Globe last month. Her two very successful predecessors, Mark Rylance and Dominic Dromgoole, both did the job for a decade, turning the theatre into London's prime Shakespeare venue and tweaking the tail of the mighty subsidised Royal Shakespeare Company. Now the Globe printed programme opens with a prominent full-page picture of Emma, and the staff and volunteer stewards have been given new teeshirts with 'Globe Team' on the back.
It may seem premature and unfair to question how Rice, who previously ran Kneehigh in Cornwall, is doing the job after she has only staged one production, A Midsummer Night's Dream. But the signs aren't good. I think there is a strong possibility that the choice of Rice will turn out to have been a ghastly mistake. In footballing terms, she may be like David Moyes taking over from Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United.
So why do I predict that the Rice diet will cause indigestion? It's not because I am a purist who thinks there is only one way to perform Shakespeare. The Bard will survive, whatever happens on Bankside. I've seen scores of productions at the Globe since it opened on the South Bank in 1997 -- probably more than Emma Rice has. They have varied from the ultra-traditional to the openly bizarre, such as a Tim Carroll production of Macbeth where the actors wore dinner jackets and dropped stones into a bucket rather than stabbing each other. Some worked well, others less so. But what the best ones had in common was an ability to use this unique space to forge a bond of complicity between actors and audience, using the theatre's special architecture.
The Globe stage, open to the elements, works best when actors and director rely on the power of Shakespeare's words and the audience's own 'imaginary forces' rather than the sound, scenery and lighting used in conventional indoor theatres. I became convinced of this during Dromgoole's 2012 Globe to Globe season, which brought 37 different companies from around the world to perform Shakespeare in their own languages, including one from South Sudan. It was the simplest productions that succeeded best, such as Two Gentlemen of Verona performed by two Zimbabwean actors equipped with nothing more than a box of improvised costumes.
In the famous words of Peter Hall about theatre, less is more. The Globe is the perfect place for what that other great Shakespearean director Peter Brook called 'Rough Theatre' -- one step away from street theatre. Not all actors are immediately equipped to forge the radically different rapport with the audience demanded by acting in daylight and making eye contact with the groundlings at their feet. Some of them find it terrifying at first. Those who can do it, while remaining in character and resisting the temptation to ham it up, create something quite magical and spontaneous. There are lots of examples I can remember, but the best one is Eve Best flirting with young men in the audience as Cleopatra.
So what can we learn from Emma Rice's debut production? Her Midsummer Night's Dream clearly delights the audience and generates a lot of laughs. And there are some strong acting performances that would be good in any kind of production. Australian artist Meow Meow is excellent as Titania/Hippolyta, Katy Owen is physically and vocally dominant as a highly mobile Puck, and Ewan Wardrop is satisfyingly vain and delusional as Bottom.
But as the performance wore on I could not escape the feeling that the director doesn't really respect or understand Shakespeare. Rice has come close to acknowledging as much, making it clear that she is more interested in Shakespeare's stories than in his texts. I'm not the first to point out that Shakespeare's stories were often borrowed from others -- it's his words that makes them unique. In this production, Rice has used a dramaturg, playwright Tanika Gupta, to adapt and update what Shakespeare wrote, presumably in the patronising belief that the audience might not understand the original. I'm not against radically updating the setting of Shakespeare's plays, as Rupert Goold did when he moved The Merchant of Venice into a Las Vegas casino a couple of years ago. But that brilliant production in Stratford worked because the boldness of the director's concept set up a strong internal tension between the modern setting and the original text. I don't think Shakespeare needs the attentions of a dramaturg. This production signals to me that Rice sees his plays as little more than raw material for comedy. It betrays a lack of confidence in the original text, and in her own ability to tease out its multiple meanings.
Some of the best lines in the play are skipped over or lost in the relentless physicality of Rice's style of direction. Like Duracell bunnies, the actors can't stand still for two seconds without leaping on top of each other or grabbing each other's bodies. There are lots of bottom-pinching moments and knob gags -- nothing new for the Globe stage -- but the non-stop pratfalls and slapstick come at a price. A Midsummer Night's Dream has other dimensions than just pantomime comedy, and this production misses them completely. There is none of the advertised Wonder. Even the famous Pyramus and Thisbe scene misfires, thanks to a lot of over-elaborate mugging around and a loss of pace. There are some directors who just don't know when to stop adding extra comic business, and Rice seems to be one of them.
Like most of Shakespeare's comedies, this play has a lot of sexual ambiguity, so there's nothing wrong in principle with turning Helena into Helenus. However I don't think it adds anything, and the decision to turn the actor playing Thisbe from a man into a woman removes some of Shakespeare's best jokes. This is gender-bending territory which past productions at the Globe have explored much more successfully, with Kathryn Hunter playing Richard III and with an all-female Taming of the Shrew.
Am I just being an old curmudgeon here? I didn't like the production, but I'm sure 90 per cent of the audience enjoyed it. So why do I think on the evidence of a single show that the new Rice formula may have dire consequences, not for Shakespeare but for the Globe? Am I just dismissing a style of Shakespearean theatre that is new and original?
What disturbs me most is the way Rice has decisively broken with the Globe's previous unique aesthetic and implanted a different one that is in fact deeply conventional. She seems to believe that Shakespeare can only work by relying on the same artificial hi-tech aids employed by most other theatres, particularly the National and the RSC. So the Globe has now been equipped for the first time with a battery of big loudspeakers and bright spotlights. Sound effects and music are now amplified so that the actors have to shout their lines to be heard. There's an elaborate over-designed set which involves big white beach balls that hover overhead and shimmering green sausages suspended from above. This turns the Globe from a unique open-air space using mostly natural light into something close to a conventional indoor theatre like hundreds of others.
The effect is to re-erect barriers which Rylance and Dromgoole removed. I mean not just the barriers between Shakespeare's theatre of 400 years ago and our own 21st century, but the barriers that divide actors and audience and prevent them from sharing an experience on equal, democratic terms. In Rice's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream there is interaction between the actors and the audience, but it's mostly choreographed rather than spontaneous. It destroys a unique theatrical dynamic and returns to a conventional proscenium arch style of theatre.
Supporters of Emma Rice will argue that if Shakespeare were alive today he would grab the chance to use the new technical possibilities on offer -- sound systems, bright lighting, elaborate stage designs. My response is that this is what most theatres do, but under Rylance and Dromgoole the Globe used what Rylance called 'original practices' to explore a different, more creative path that was truly radical. By installing heavy duty sound and lighting equipment, Rice is signalling that era is now over. It's a bit like the day Bob Dylan said goodbye to the acoustic guitar and switched to an electric model.
I have no idea what's going on backstage at the Globe since Rice took over, but from an audience perspective there are some worrying signs. The glorious candle-lit indoor theatre named after Sam Wanamaker, which was Dromgoole's biggest legacy, will be mostly dark until September, apart from 20 performances of a Kneehigh show The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk and the occasional concert. It's not clear why this amazing space is being used less than before over the summer. Perhaps Rice was just too busy with loudspeakers and teeshirts to programme anything. Her determination to put her own stamp on the Globe immediately, minimising continuity with the outgoing regime, seems to be evident in her choice not to cast any actors in the Dream who have performed at the Globe before.
When the Globe opened in 1997 the British theatre establishment sneered at it as a 'heritage' theatre for tourists. They were wrong, but it took many years before Rylance and Dromgoole overcame that prejudice, drawing in top-flight actors such as Janie Dee, Roger Allam and Jonathan Pryce. Dromgoole, building on Rylance's legacy, showed an extraordinary ability to take artistic gambles, not just with the Globe to Globe season, but more recently with a two-year world tour of Hamlet that the more risk-averse RSC would never have attempted.
Emma Rice has been unstinting in her professions of love for Shakespeare and for the Globe stage. But as Shakespeare's plays -- especially the Dream -- constantly remind us, love often leads to a catalogue of mistakes. Love is not the same as understanding, and quite often it is the opposite. On the present evidence, I would not place a bet on her remaining as artistic director as long as her predecessors. Or if she does stay, she may turn the Globe into what some people wrongly feared it might be when it opened -- just a tourist destination.