It’s been quite an eye-opener of a season for me. After two of the best years of my life with Emma Rice in charge, I could easily have decided to call it a day myself – it would be fair enough to call it taking a stand against the board. However, given that the traditionalists that I seem to spend too much time arguing with did exactly that when Emma took over, I feel like it would’ve come across as extremely childish to give it up completely without trying it out. And very un-Emma. Also, having never seen anything there before 2016, I simply had to satisfy my curiosity.
As you know, I love me a good bit of lighting design, so it was definitely sad to lose that aspect this season – consequently I’ve decided not to attend a midnight matinée again, as this was definitely an integral part of the magic I experienced in 2016 & 2017. However, what I will continue to make a point about is the sound. Original practice is all well and good, but the audience needs to be able to hear what is being said (especially given the moaning about amending the text in previous seasons). The theatre is in a 21st century capital city with a flight path overhead. Some days you will be lucky and have no or minimal noise pollution, but on other days it will be unbearable – my very first show of the season, Hamlet, was almost completely obliterated by this noise (including a police helicopter that hovered directly overhead for an entire scene) and made me uncertain about ever going back.
What also doesn’t help is that a good number of the actors cast this season didn’t seem to understand how to use the space to project their voices effectively, either just talking normally or thinking that shouting was just as good. It’s mostly fine if you’re stood right up next to the stage, but standing anywhere else (or sitting in seats whose prices have been increased) means you’re risking missing key bits of dialogue. They’re going to need to consider mics of some kind, even if just as backup.
I’m gutted that I didn’t end up making it to any of the Read Not Dead performances, or the ‘festivals’ that were programmed; scheduling & money were definite issues, plus the main Read Not Dead I was hoping to get to was sold out by the time I could consider booking. Hopefully these kind of things will be kept up next summer, and I’ll be sure to plan around the dates a bit better.
At least I did make it to Sonnet Sunday, which was a great addition to the calendar. The only thing that I would’ve liked is a bit more preparation – this last-minute planning is something that also cropped up with the Voter’s Choice shows (they announced they were doing it before settling on the way the audience would choose the play). For one thing, with there being morning and afternoon slots, I naturally presumed the same things would be done each time – what actually happened was there were two completely different sets of people for the two performances in the Globe Theatre, and though there was nothing to stop us going to both if we wanted, I’d planned my day around being out all afternoon so didn’t have time to come in two hours earlier.
Those of us who were doing the full experience (wandering around the site before the performance) were given no clue as to what the format of the day would be, even once we were let into the building, so I was quite freaked out when a random person came up to me and started ‘sonneting’ at me… Because of the kind of personality I am, it took a good while for me to properly get into it – I was slightly uncomfortable at the lack of structure and having my personal space invaded, however the longer it went on with nobody else coming up to me I started to feel awkward about that instead. It also seemed like the performers who were occupying the confessionals needed either regular shifts or some other way of swapping over and not leaving them empty. All that being said, it was a nice event and a great way of working with the local community. Hopefully it will become a regular thing, but with some learning & planning along the way.
And what about the main schedule? A little bit hit and miss, for me. With the sheer number of productions it felt a little more like quantity over quality; I appreciate the ambition, but it just needs to be reined in a tad next time to find a good balance. In the end, I achieved my goal of seeing every Globe production (bar Twelfth Night), as well as seeing Love’s Labour’s Lost in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse – I didn’t make it there to see Nanjing, as the run was just too short.
For me, the two touring shows (The Merchant of Venice and The Taming of the Shrew) were the weakest of the whole season. Had I been at a Voter’s Choice performance, my outlook might have been different; knowing that the actors had found out at the same time as me which play was going to be put on could excuse certain weaknesses in performance, or even add a certain energy to proceedings. Whilst it is obviously impressive that the cast had learnt multiple roles for three plays, both of those that I saw felt quite one-dimensional and didn’t grab me at all. Perhaps scheduling one performance of each and then making all the rest Voter’s Choice would be the way to go instead?
A similar sort of thing could be said for the Globe Ensemble’s two efforts: As You Like It and Hamlet. Though at least they could balance things out a little better, with two plays and a larger group of actors – so there was a bit more of an opportunity for them to define their roles in both plays, as they were slightly more prominent in one than the other. As You Like It was definitely my favourite of the two; obviously my experience of Hamlet was slightly marred by the sound, but in spite of an affecting portrayal of Ophelia from Shubham Saraf and moments of brilliance from Michelle Terry in the lead role, it was quite an average production. The Globe Ensemble is a terrific idea, but a clarity of vision is what’s needed for it to progress next year – a lack of focus and direction makes it much harder to get engrossed in these plays.
The Two Noble Kinsmen was nice to finally tick off my Shakespeare list (and I was also very pleased to see Ewan Wardrop on Morris dancing choreography duty), but it was a production more to appreciate than truly love. You could tell why it’s a rarely performed play, as tranches of the text are pretty but unintelligible to many of us – more informed direction in places would definitely have helped to make things a bit clearer, as well as making sure the actors understood what it was they were actually saying (when they sound like they’re just speaking words it helps nobody at all). The dance and design was wonderful, however.
The big headline of the season’s announcement was that Mark Rylance would be making his return to the Globe to play Iago in Othello. In all honesty, having seen it twice (once as a groundling at the edge of the stage, and once in a seat on press night), it felt like Rylance was phoning it in. On paper you could see how this casting should be ideal, but a combination of the direction and some odd acting choices really did nothing for it – I can see the logic of playing things for laughs early on, but to make it serious later in the play some changes have to be made. As it was, Iago ended up as a figure of fun until just before the very end. At least Sheila Atim was as incredible as ever, and André Holland was a revelation in the title role.
A couple of big surprises came in the form of Love’s Labour’s Lost and The Winter’s Tale. I’ve only ever seen one production of Love’s Labour’s Lost before (the RSC’s transfer, directed by Christopher Luscombe), and whilst the pre-World War One concept was cleverly applied, it didn’t come across as a comedy to me and left me utterly frustrated with the story. This year’s SWP production completely turned that on its head! Again, the concept was sound, but this time it was actually funny – hilariously so (especially Jos Vantyler as the charistmatic Don Armado). It was utterly bemusing to me that the reviews were so lukewarm, and many of them sounded like they were chastising Nick Bagnall for making a comedy appear as a comedy!
Similarly, I’ve only ever seen one production of The Winter’s Tale: the Branagh Theatre Company version back in 2015. That one left me wondering if the concept and emotionless performance from Branagh were what turned me off it, or if the play itself just wasn’t for me – it turns out it was definitely the former. Blanche McIntyre’s production was playful & clear to follow, with moments of perfect comedy as well as high drama. The only thing the two productions have in common is a disappointing “Exit, pursued by a bear” moment – but I’m convinced there’s no good way of doing that anyway…
The two plays I was most looking forward to before the season began were the two pieces of new writing that were to be performed in the Globe Theatre: Emilia and Eyam. Whilst it’s fantastic that Michelle Terry has pledged to keep including new writing in her seasons, to have such short runs (with no potential to even slightly extend) is disappointing. It follows in the same sort of mould as the last couple of summer seasons, but particularly after the success of Emilia I think the approach needs to be developed for future seasons; programme slightly more performances in the first place (Emilia and Eyam had fewer shows than Boudica last year) and keep some slots free so additional performances can be scheduled if a show is popular.
For what it’s worth, it really feels as though there is more to come from Emilia. Aside from the incredible response it got as a timely & inspiring piece of writing, surely too much time & effort has been invested in the wonderful set and costumes to just cast it aside? It definitely feels like it could return for a longer run next year, and then maybe go the way of the brilliant Nell Gwynn and head out on tour, perhaps also with a short West End engagement. It was great to see how much interest it generated, though what would be even better is if people who came to see Emilia gave one or two other shows a go off the back of it…
It’s amazing that so many people probably tried the Globe for the first time (or paid a rare visit) just for this, but consistent support is vital – and will help shape the kind of things that are put on in the future.
I am now settled again with the Globe – a regular visitor, but not an inhabitant – though I am rethinking my status as a groundling. I’ve never been great in crowds, though I’ve got better (you sort of have to if you want to live in London!), but I definitely felt myself becoming far more anxious before each time in the yard this year. Fellow groundlings seem to be getting consistently more selfish and physical, so I’m either worrying that something will happen or am being subjected to someone pushing me or edging closer & closer – it really detracts from the experience, and a few times I’ve been on the verge of leaving. I hate having to ask people to be quiet at the best of times (I don’t get on with confrontation), but when you’re stood right next to the stage you really feel like you can’t! Though in the second half of Sunday’s final performance of The Winter’s Tale I had to say something to two girls stood next to me – they kept saying that they couldn’t understand it, so I’d like to think they followed it a bit better from that moment on…
It’s all very well the stewards being rigorous about photography & things being put on the stage, but for me it’s almost coming to the point where people need to be reminded that there’s enough space for everyone, so you don’t have to all squash into the same spot. It is possible to stand in that yard with a reasonable amount of personal space on all sides.
But whether I leave it to others to stand in the yard or take my place there every now and then, I will definitely be back for more next summer – and I can’t wait to see what’s on the cards. By that time, all I should need to tick off my Shakespeare list is The Two Gentlemen of Verona and all the Henry plays (bar Henry V), so I’m putting in a plea for one or some of those now! In the meantime, it’s now a case of waiting for the winter season to finally begin in three weeks’ time…