There was something a bit spooky about watching Dominic Dromgoole’s Tempest in London at Shakespeare’s Globe. Although the theatre that now stands on the banks of the Thames is only a replica of the place where Shakespeare wrote, directed, and acted, the space in which I sat seemed full of ghosts. The actor playing Prospero (Tim McMullan), with his high hairline, heavy-lidded eyes, and long nose, even looked a little like the Author.
The resemblance might have been an accident, but the choice of play certainly was not. The Tempest is Shakespeare’s last great play and his elegiac farewell to life in the theater, and this is Dromgoole’s last production before he retires from his 10-year run as the Globe’s artistic director. He will be replaced by Emma Rice, a director with only one Shakespeare production under her belt, and who doesn’t seem very fond of him at all: "I have tried to sit down with Shakespeare but it doesn’t work," she told the Guardian, "I get very sleepy and then suddenly I want to listen to [the British soap opera] The Archers."
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"He was writing 400 years ago, there is no way in the world every line can still be relevant," she adds.
Yikes. While we don’t know whether Rice’s words reflect a genuine dislike of Shakespeare, a clumsy attempt at pandering ("I’m not a regular director, I’m a cool director"), or a desire to troll the traditionalists, we do know that the recently quite traditional Shakespeare’s Globe is about to change. Whether it will "change/into something rich and strange," or into something stupid, remains to be seen.
Shakespeare himself is said to have played Prospero, and as I sat down for Dromgoole’s Tempest, I thought of his warning that "the great Globe itself" would inevitably "dissolve/And, like this insubstantial pageant faded/Leave not a rack behind." It would be a shame to dissolve this place. Set on the bare stage of the Globe’s Wanamaker Playhouse (a replica of Shakespeare’s indoor theater, the Blackfriars), this was a perfect-looking production. The actors were wearing neck ruffs and doublets. Miranda (Phoebe Pryce) was beautiful, Caliban (Fisayo Akinade) was vulnerable and fearsome (though sadly not half-fish), and Prospero, as we have said, was Shakespeare. There were no backdrops, few props, and a house lit only by a system of candles and mirrors.
Ariel, played by Pippa Nixon, was the high point. She had a chorus of about six spirits with her that were mostly kept out of sight. They were placed behind the walls to the left, right, and back of the audience. When Ariel first sings, the voices of the chorus suddenly join in with her, surrounding the audience with high-pitched harmonies. We don’t see them coming, it makes the audience jump. Ariel is here and everywhere, her voice instantly otherworldly. Even without the chorus, Nixon’s melodic, mournful singing conveyed a deeper sense of mystery and sorrow than any of the Cirque-du-Soleil-style special effects people love to use with Ariel, turning her into a kind of Tinkerbell.
Tempests in general are over-produced; the sequences where magical things happen or where spirits appear are weighted down with pageantry and high-tech costumes that completely drown out text and lose the audience.
The scene where Prospero conjures the Greek gods to bless his daughter's marriage is especially hard to do well: I have seen Tempests have Prospero conjure the Greek gods in the form of Lion King-style actors on stilts, Chinese New Year dragons, or as the 1920’s Ziegfeld follies. I’ve never had the slightest idea what was going on. This time, goddesses in white robes simply led Ferdinand and Miranda in a dance, teaching them the movements, and then letting them dance on their own. In their movements, you could see that, by blessing them, Prospero was also teaching the young couple how to be free of him.
I was able to see something I had missed before because it was always hidden by sound, fury, and big showgirl feathers. The magical parts of Shakespeare should always strive to be so illuminating about something latent in the text.
Yet this one scene was not enough to save the show. I have so far praised the production’s looks, its lovely singing and music, and its streamlined magic. I have said little about the performance itself. That is because it was boring. The actors were declaiming, not speaking to each other. Prospero would give the audience knowing looks during the "famous lines." The show was slogged in its own Shakespearean-ness.
I first read Rice’s interview wondering what self-hating passion had led the Board of Directors to hire her. But coming out of this performance, I think I understand what may have prompted the decision. Thanks to Shakespeare’s renown, the theater enjoys a steady stream of tourists and school trips, but as a serious theater, the Globe’s reputation is in decline. It is neglected by critics and seen by locals as a museum that recreates a certain kind of theater, not a creative engine in its own right.
My American friends who had been to the Globe also said they had been disappointed with their visit. "Sterile," they called it. Unimaginative. Even choosing the Tempest for your last production as a Shakespeare director is itself an obvious cliché.
The selection of Rice, whose work is known for being controversial and divisive, seems to be a deliberate, reactionary response to a long line of stilted performances. It is both a cry for attention and a cry for help. Theoretically, the Globe could benefit a lot from hiring an artistic director who was intelligent and energetic but not steeped in Shakespeare, one who could genuinely approach the text as something new and surprising, rather than something stuck in amber.
But the reviews of the one Shakespeare play Rice has handled (a dumbed-down Cymbeline where someone tells Imogen to "come and suck my toes") indicates that she believes making Shakespeare more "accessible" means dragging him down rather than lifting the audience up.
Her desire to be daring with the texts is not itself a bad thing, nor is her expressed interest in gender and bringing in more women to play traditionally male roles. Shakespeare was extremely interested in both of those things. But, one hopes, as Rice becomes familiar with more than one Shakespeare play, she’ll stop looking for ways to change the plays, and start learning how to let the plays change her.
The Globe has seen hard times before—in 1613, a cannon shot off during a production of Henry VIII set the thatch roof on fire and burned the place down. They rebuilt it only to have the Puritans shutter it and tear it down in 1644. It remained unbuilt for almost 400 years. Like Ariel’s airy spirit, Shakespeare’s plays are not tied down to any particular place. Shakespeare doesn’t need the Globe, but the Globe needs better Shakespeare if it wants to be anything more than a tourist trap.