Theatre in Wales

Commentary and extended critical writing on theatre, dance and performance in Wales

The Globe: Arts Writing Failing

The Guardian, Times & Stage on Theatre's Ruckus of the Year

he earlier than expected ending of Emma Rice's tenure as Artistic Director at London's Globe was cause for the largest quantity of press articles and comment of 2016. The ending was gentle by corporate or political comparison. In mid-June Osborne and Gove were at the political summit. Days on they were reminiscent of Kevin Spacey in “the Usual Suspects”. “Like that” he blows a puff of air across his open palm “and he's gone.”

The commentary left out that it is not that uncommon. A high-profile appointee from England to one of the best venues in Australia did not last the course. A leadership position at the National Theatre of Scotland similarly was shorter than anticipated. But London is more news. Nonetheless the Globe is an important venue.

However, commentary of insight was made difficult by the fact that the corporate players were as parsimonious in explanation as in any other industry. Big arts companies tend to reveal that they have much in common with corporations from other sectors. If the primary information was terse to say the least the commentary displayed the three usual vices. The pathology of deficiency has familiar symptoms: inattention to the primary sources, vested interest under a carapace of objectivity, and an attitude of elasticity towards accuracy.

First, a disclaimer. I have never been to the Globe and cannot envisage the circumstances under which I might. If in London I tend to the new. The month of the news from the Globe I was at “Murder Ballad”, a fresh sung-through, Manhattan-sourced show. Kneehigh is one of the companies who used to be seen in Wales and are to be seen no more. “Their established technique is to borrow a canonical story and to adumbrate and recreate its core narrative” ran the review on this site in February 2010. “The emergent performance is typically a web of brilliantly textured sound and movement that is original, often quirky. At their best the company’s sheer level of inventiveness gives back to the word “play” its first meaning.”

But the model has its limitations. “Les Parapluies de Cherbourg” is utterly of itself as a film. To make a musical from it is either to mimic it, which has no purpose, or to run a variation on it which is a diminution of a master work. Hindsight is of course easy.

The Kneehigh model would likely have difficulty, probably extreme difficulty, with the histories or tragedies which are the bulk of the Shakespeare oeuvre. This possibility went unexplored by the Guardian which published a total of five articles on the subject. These attracted responses by the hundred, mainly to the effect they were all the same and only published for clicks. Michael Morpurgo was hired to write that “we need inspired directors to take risks, to bring theatre to the people, to bring more people to the theatre.” Such qualities were to the fore when Kneehigh did one of his stories. So he is an insider, hardly an disinterested commentator.

From the public record it is plain that it was “Cymbeline” which pulled the plug. So when an editorial brandishes the heading “we must keep the Bard alive and speaking to us now” that is sheer inattention. Swathes of the playwright's words went. Even the play's title was too much. The tenor of the time was not helped by Matthew Dunster's talk of “reclaiming” the play, as if Shakespeare were some kind of antagonist.

A Guardian writer laid claim to brilliance of the reviews. All it showed was how weak is the hand of the arts editor on the tiller. Although not to the degree of Dominic Cavendish who resorted to “criminal” his own paper's judgement on non-Cymbeline was harsh.

The tributes included the report that “box-office receipts were superlative.” That may be true. But this is the Internet. A commentator said that they were bulked by mass discounting to groups. That may or may not be true. This again is the Internet. But if a broadsheet turns its voice to that of propagandist it has lost the trust that ought to come naturally. But whether or not one season's cash was good a Board is about long-term stewardship and since the Board said so little we are left in the dark.

Reporters get information from primary sources. In place of making enquiry of Board or Director- that is, making a telephone call- the argument was tilted. In this line the Board was unable to stomach “her energy, her inventiveness, her originality” and “decide she is simply too original, too inventive.” This is overly reductionist, and the actual viewers at the Globe had their contrary say. Back at the paper the line of writing declared the artistic motive to be “boldly investigating how the theatre can remain relevant for modern audiences”. The message is that Shakespeare's England, riven by faction and politics, is just so old.

The editorialising tied itself in knots trying to eschew a novelty-is-best stance. The language was loaded. Europe has “artists free from the weight of Britain’s Shakespearean baggage, free from the reverence that the British can devote to the plays.” But it ended up on “an essential point can get lost: that the most superficially modern vision of Shakespeare can be poor theatre, and that an apparently conservative production can hold great insight.”

However, it is also the fault of the watchers, those who actually buy the tickets. “ Audiences, want to keep Shakespeare alive and speaking to us now – which he is more than ready to do – they must be bold, and shake off the burden of the past. The texts will remain with us, ready to be read afresh another day.” Note “text”. This language hates the word “play”.

Over at “the Stage” it was modern versus the dead hand of non-topical. We need “irreverent, intelligent, diverse, accessible and welcoming theatre that actively engages with these plays and what they might say to an audience today”. Let's look forward to the writer's irreverent “Othello” or “Richard III.” This is not a question of right nor wrong. These observations are not even really about the Globe but about writing. It is about a shrill commentary with a lack of industry that ultimately lets theatre down.

author:Adam Somerset

original source:
29 December 2016


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