Read Not Dead: Mucedorus

Mucedorus is the third in the Globe’s miniseries of Read Not Dead readings, ‘Before Shakespeare’. It’s one of the most commonly reprinted early modern plays, dating from around 1590. It has been attributed on occasion to Shakespeare, although it is now generally accepted that it is not by him.

The play tells of Mucedorus, Prince of Valencia, who disguises himself as a shepherd in order to sneak unseen into neighbouring Aragon to see the princess Amandine. Romantic, comic and tragic scenes ensue until the conflict is resolved. I thought this was one of the funniest early modern plays I’ve seen, and I was especially amused by the bear scenes!

Read Not Dead: Fedele and Fortunio

Fedele and Fortunio is the second in the Globe’s miniseries of Read Not Dead readings, ‘Before Shakespeare’. It is believed to be the fourth surviving play from the London playhouses, and the fifth to be printed, in 1584. Written by Anthony Munday, it’s the first play to resemble a recognisable Shakespearean-style comedy, with complex plots, cross-dressing and mistaken identity.

This was one of the funniest plays I’ve seen as part of the Read Not Dead series. It was highly amusing and very well acted by all involved.

Terrors of the Night

I went to see a Read Not Dead performance at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse with a difference – a prose reading of Thomas Nashe’s The Terrors of the Night (1594). Marking the author’s 450th anniversary, the Thomas Nashe Project is a five-year research programme funded by the AHRC, and this performance was related to that project. The text was edited by Dr Kate De Rycker, directed by Jason Morell, and performed by Peter Hamilton Dyer and Caroline Faber. It was accompanied by music performed by Ansuman Biswas.

The Terrors of the Night is a meditation on the meaning of dreams. Are dreams the work of supernatural forces, or are they influenced by the individual’s fears? It’s a fascinating exploration of the conflict between superstition and scepticism, and it was powerfully performed by the two actors in an atmospheric setting.

Read Not Dead: Rare Triumphs of Love and Fortune

Rare Triumphs of Love and Fortune is the first in a miniseries of four plays performed in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse as part of Read Not Dead, known as ‘Before Shakespeare’. It is a very rare and interesting play: first performed by the Earl of Derby’s Men at court in 1582, it is one of only two plays that survive from the first fifteen years of commercial theatre.

The play itself sees the goddesses Venus and Fortune in a debate over who has the most agency in human affairs. They get involved in a complex situation but eventually everything is sorted out. Like all Read Not Dead performances, it was hugely enjoyable, performed well by a dedicated cast.

Read Not Dead: The Coxcomb

Every year Shakespeare’s Globe puts on a programme of play readings, known as Read Not Dead; thankfully, the new regime hasn’t put paid to them and they are still an important part of the schedule. I normally try to get to one or two a year, and on Sunday I went along to The Coxcomb, an early work by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher. The play is based on an episode on Cervantes’ Don Quixote. Since 2016 also marks the 400th anniversary of the death of the Spanish author, it’s no wonder it was chosen for performance this year.

The plot of The Coxcomb is convoluted, concerning a man who falls in love with his friend’s wife and is surprised to find that his friend appears quite happy to let him indulge his lust. There is also a subplot involving a runaway couple. It’s not always easy to follow, but it leads to several amusing moments.

The plays are always given out to the actors on the morning of the day they are due to take place; they then spend the day rehearsing them before presenting them to the audience in the afternoon. Apart from the scripts in hand and the odd missed cue, you’d hardly notice, a testament to the skill and commitment of the actors involved. The Coxcomb was no different, with actors giving rounded performances. It was an interesting piece, and well worth the watch.

My thoughts on Emma Rice leaving Shakespeare’s Globe

The big theatre news today is that Emma Rice is stepping down as Artistic Director of Shakespeare’s Globe. I must admit that the first thing I felt when I heard this news was unrivalled joy (followed by guilt: I’m not that heartless, and at the end of the day, someone has lost their job).

When Rice’s appointment was announced, I had major reservations. She had only directed one Shakespeare play in the past, and admitted in interviews that his work “sent her to sleep”. I was surprised, to be honest, that she was considered the best choice. Still, I wanted to give her a chance: her first season sounded genuinely interesting, and as a feminist I wanted to celebrate and support the fact that a woman had been chosen for such a major post. Rice had been really successful as AD of Kneehigh theatre company, and there was the possibility that she would be able to translate that success to the Globe.

I’ve reviewed the productions that I’ve seen this summer, but by and large, I was disappointed. A Midsummer Night’s Dream in particular, so acclaimed by many, bored me and the modern lighting, which lit the stage while leaving the pit in darkness, left the audience removed from the action, destroying the very thing that made the Globe special – the relationship between actor and audience that brought Shakespeare’s plays to life in a way I haven’t experienced in any other theatre I’ve visited.

The statement from the Globe Board suggests that these same concerns have led to Rice’s departure. Some people have suggested that this is a smokescreen and there are other issues at stake, and they may be right: I have no professional involvement in the theatre business, and I don’t pretend to know how boards work or how the Globe Board thinks, but to me it’s entirely plausible, and I wholeheartedly agree with this statement in particular:

The Globe was reconstructed as a radical experiment to explore the conditions within which Shakespeare and his contemporaries worked, and we believe this should continue to be the central tenet of our work.

I am slightly puzzled as to why Rice was appointed in the first place: surely the board knew about her previous work and (lack of) Shakespeare experience? What did they expect?

It bothers me that the argument has been presented by many commentators as boring and safe and traditional versus diverse and new and exciting. As if the theatre under Mark Rylance and Dominic Dromgoole was ever just a museum piece. I’ve had some of the most exciting experiences I’ve ever had in the theatre at the Globe during the latter’s tenure, from midnight matinées to the Henry VI trilogy day, which ended in pouring rain that still didn’t spoil the event, and from the amazing Globe to Globe Festival in 2012 to the triumphant return of the World Hamlet company earlier this year after spending two years travelling the (real) Globe. I’d argue that in a city full of theatres that often produce (brilliant) modern day Shakespeare, the Globe actually adds to cultural diversity by offering a unique experience with Shakespeare largely performed in traditional dress and making use of practices in keeping with the ethos of the theatre. This doesn’t mean that everything has to be completely authentic – some critics have suggested that they should go the whole hog and hand out Elizabethan diseases and let people piss on the floor, which is completely missing the point. I also hope that Rice’s accessibility innovations are kept, such as surtitles, sign language interpreted performances, and relaxed performances. I do think that any decision needs to work with the space, not against it: the lighting rigs and microphones, however, show a fundamental lack of understanding of the Globe space – effectively trying to push a square peg into a round hole, and turning the Globe into a theatre just like any other, with the added disadvantage that you might get rained on. I appreciate that lots of people loved A Midsummer Night’s Dream, even if I hated it, but my biggest issue was that it could have been performed absolutely anywhere.

I honestly wish Emma Rice all the best. I’m sure she’ll find the success she deserves: it’s telling that my favourite production of her 2016 season was not a Shakespeare, but The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk, a work Rice originally directed with Kneehigh. I would love to see more of her work away from the Globe, and I hope whoever is chosen to be the theatre’s next Artistic Director loves and respects Shakespeare, and is able to work with the space to make wonderful productions.

Read Not Dead: A Pleasant Conceited Historie, Called The Taming of a Shrew

I chose to attend the Read Not Dead performance of A Pleasant Conceited Historie, Called The Taming of a Shrew out of curiosity more than anything. It’s an alternative version of the more famous The Taming of the Shrew, but the exact relationship between the two plays is shrouded in mystery. Shakespeare may have written A Shrew, or he may not; The Shrew may be the later play, or it may be the earlier. Either way, it’s certain that both plays have near-identical plots and other considerable similarities. One thing I found particularly interesting is that the framing plot device involving Sly was invoked at both the beginning and end of the play; I did prefer this to The Shrew, in which the plot device is used at the beginning but forgotten at the end. However, the subplot here, in which Kate’s two sisters (unlike the one sister she has in The Shrew) seek to marry, is more concerned with class and comedy than with deception. It was fascinating to see this version on stage: Shrew is a problematic play anyway, but I found this experience illuminating.