Is there a new spirit of nationalism around? Culture wars are always a good way of taking the country’s temperature, and this past week has seen a strange eruption of Britcentric feeling: a battle for the soul of Shakespeare.
On Tuesday, Shakespeare’s Globe, the reproduction Elizabethan theatre opened in 1997 on the south bank of the Thames, announced it was parting company with its director Emma Rice. She has been in the job only seven months and will leave in 2018. Chief executive Neil Constable said her work had “generated productive debate concerning the purpose and theatrical practice of the Globe, in relation to the use of sound and lighting technology”. There followed a lot of fluff about the concept of “shared light” in Elizabethan theatre.
Are we really to believe that the future of a figure whom the Globe itself describes as “brilliant and inventive” was decided on the basis of a few lighting effects and microphones?
Hardly. The truth is that “productive debate” proved too rich for them. Yet the board knew precisely what they were getting with Ms Rice’s appointment. Her record could not have been more transparent. A founding member of Kneehigh, the community theatre group that rose to triumphs in the West End and on Broadway under her direction, she creates theatre that is surprising, irreverent, wildly energetic, oppositional and uncompromising in its originality. She has never directed a piece of “straight” Shakespeare in her life.
So the Globe wanted a new broom and new audience appeal. When it got them, it could not handle them. Over the past months, Ms Rice’s work has generated rave reviews, high revenues and packed houses, but these have been balanced by vicious attacks and pompous musings about what Shakespeare’s legacy ought to be. For instance, while punters queued for her sold-out Midsummer Night’s Dream earlier this year, lured and delighted by its transgressive, high-octane style, journalist Richard Morrison fulminated against the “perversity, incongruity and disrespect of mounting it at the Globe”.
“Disrespect”? Really? Since when was the sacred flame of Shakespeare’s reputation handed over in trust to an ersatz modern building which, if it does not produce vivid and forward-looking theatrical work, is nothing more than a theme park? We are hardly short of Shakespeare in the capital, or the country, or across the world: the Globe does not have a monopoly on the Bard.
Yet it considers itself, and is considered, somehow special. Mr Morrison admitted he would have enjoyed the show he lambasted if he had seen it anywhere else. Mr Constable’s statement contends that the Globe was established as “a radical experiment to explore the conditions within which Shakespeare and his contemporaries worked”. Yet according to its deed of charity trust, its aims are wider and more adventurous: to stimulate “public appreciation and understanding of the dramatic art in all its forms, but principally in relation to the works of William Shakespeare”.
Something else may be going on here. Shakespeare’s Globe receives no public subsidy. Unpalatable as this might be, there is no doubt a direct correlation between levels of public subsidy and levels of artistic experimentation. Look across a spectrum of the US, the UK and Germany — respectively from low to high subsidy levels — and you see a corresponding arc of conservatism-to-experimentation in the performing arts.
If there is any doubt that the financial status of institutions like the Globe can be affected by such considerations, reports have already emerged that one funding body, the Joyce Carr Doughty Charitable Trust, which made grants to Shakespeare’s Globe because it was enthused by Ms Rice’s appointment, is rescinding its funding pledges.
That is the view of the modernisers. But perhaps, in this battle, the traditionalists have already triumphed.