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.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

A Midsummer Night’s Dream was the first production to open at the Globe this summer, Emma Rice’s flagship production that seemed to make a statement about what sort of place the Globe would be under her tenure. As things happened, I didn’t end up seeing this until August, as it had sold out for several weeks prior, which bodes well for the success of the new regime.

I was rather excited about seeing this Dream, having heard so many good things about it, including a good report from a colleague who had been nervous about the theatre’s new direction but who came into the office full of praise for the production. I didn’t blink an eye at the giant balloons dotted about, but the modern sound system and microphones made me feel a bit more uncomfortable.

I did like the mechanicals, dressed as Globe stewards, reminding us of the theatre’s ground rules and getting the crowd on side straight away. I also liked the decision to change Helena into Helenus, which added a new dimension to the character’s relationships with Hermia, Demetrius and Lysander. In fact, all of the central quartet were great and I enjoyed the play most when they were on stage.

Overall, I was rather bored with the production. This was a reaction I had not expected to have. I was prepared for the fact that I might not like it, but not for actual boredom. When I asked an usher, during the interval, what time it was due to finish and he said half past ten, I could feel my heart sinking. Standing for three hours at the Globe has always been a bit of a challenge, but I’d never before seen it as a chore.

Why? Perhaps because there were too many songs: I just wanted the characters to get on with it. The fairy queen (cabaret star Meow Meow) and her kingly consort were good but didn’t grab my attention enough. The changes that had been made to the text grated on me, too. A couple of changes in a production can be witty and clever, but the sheer number here suggested to me that Rice doesn’t have enough confidence in Shakespeare’s language, slightly worrying when she is supposed to be running his theatre.

The biggest issue for me was the lighting: there is now proper theatrical lighting in the theatre, which I noticed in this production more than in the other two I saw this summer, probably because the nights are starting to draw in. The audience connection was always the best thing about the Globe, but here towards the end of the evening the pit was shrouded in darkness and despite the best efforts of Puck to engage with the groundlings, I remained unmoved.

I do worry that the Globe isn’t going to be special any more. I can’t imagine a day like the one I spent standing in the pit all day for the Henry VI trilogy, refusing to leave even as the rain poured down. Maybe I’m being too hasty. Emma Rice’s tenure promises many great things: relaxed performances, signed performances, a more equal balance of men and women on stage, but the actual productions so far have left me cold.

Macbeth: The Added Scenes and The Missing Scenes – John Wolfson Lecture

John Wolfson, Honorary Curator of Rare Books at Shakespeare’s Globe, gives an annual lecture on some aspect of Shakespeare’s work. This year, his lecture, which took place in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, was entitled Macbeth: The Added Scenes and The Missing Scenes.

Macbeth is unusually short for a Shakespeare tragedy, suggesting that some scenes have been lost. The play also contains scenes known to have been added by another hand. The missing scenes and the added scenes are the subject of John Wolfson’s talk this year.

I was vaguely aware that Macbeth was the shortest Shakespearean tragedy, but I honestly had no idea that some of its scenes were supposed to be missing and I certainly didn’t know that others had been added. Naturally it’s harder to tell where the missing scenes are than the added scenes, though Shakespeare scholars have made attempts to identify these over the years. Wolfson’s talk was fascinating, illuminated by actors from his forthcoming play The Inn at Lydda who enlivened proceedings by declaiming several lines of dialogue.

It is thought that Thomas Middleton was particularly culpable when it came to slotting in scenes: there was a witch called Hecate in his play The Witch so it is believed that he added the Hecate scene in Macbeth, as well as the songs. David Garrick, the famous seventeenth-century actor, added a death speech to the end of the play but naturally enough, this is not performed now. I was slightly disappointed that there was no reference to my own favourite Macbeth anecdote: the famously dreadful poet William McGonagall tried his hand at acting, and on one occasion when playing Macbeth he simply refused to die.

For me, the most illuminating aspect of the talk involved the structure of the play and how it reflects the missing scenes. Acts 1 to 3 have a strong structure with Macbeth as the main character, but Act 4 has a scene between Macduff and Malcolm, in which Malcolm tests Macduff’s loyalty, which makes no sense in the context of what has come before. It’s possible that Shakespeare did originally include this plot thread and the scenes have gone missing. We are also meant to be aware that Macbeth has been king for many years between the banquet scene and the start of Act 4 but we don’t really get a sense of this.

Macbeth is a powerful but flawed play and this talk really helped me appreciate some of the difficulties surrounding its structure and performance. I’m looking forward to both seeing and reading the play again to explore this further.