The announcement that Emma Rice, artistic director of the Globe Theatre, will be leaving after two years begs a lot of questions. The Globe, which opened in 1997 on a wave of goodwill, has surfed it ever since. Fears that it would be just a home for heritage Shakespeare proved delightfully unfounded. Its previous two artistic directors, Mark Rylance and Dominic Dromgoole, were people no-one could accuse of being cosy, both mavericks known for unconventional productions and for speaking out. Emma Rice had tough acts to follow, but her unexpected departure, apparently triggered by the Board’s objections to her use of amplification and lighting rigs, looks like the Globe’s first big mistake.
Not everything in Rice’s first Globe season was a success. She imported a lot of Kneehigh’s work, as though the Globe was just another handy London venue. Some of the Shakespeare was misconceived: Matthew Dunster’s hip hop Cymbeline had some great dancing, but failed to connect concept to play in any coherent way. The new microphones seemed to make the Globe’s acoustics worse not better. The stage lighting undermined the unique Globe atmosphere: the ‘shared light’ that reveals audience and performers to each other. These were failed experiments.
However, audiences loved much of what Rice did. She is a born crowd pleaser who made her name with Cornish company Kneehigh, making inventive, site-specific theatre. She had never directed Shakespeare. The Globe board knew this, so it is baffling that they appointed her but rejected her ideas. As Lyn Gardner points out, Rice was not expecting the board to be precious about the way she used the building and had four seasons planned out, so something clearly went very wrong.
Rice has recently complained of sexist treatment by critics and the industry, unnamed men accusing of her of being ‘loud’ and ‘naughty’. Her departure certainly harms the hard-earned reputation of the Globe as an innovative and important theatre. Its two spaces are unique and special, not only laboratories for exploring historical performance but also ideal spaces for engaging directly with the audience.
The Globe needs to restore its reputation by showing it is still prepared to take risks. It would be a disaster if the next director was a safe pair of hands.