Emma Rice: ‘Theatres are modern day churches’
At a bleak time to live in London, the Globe artistic director decided to base her farewell season around love
Much of Emma Rice’s career has been invested in fairy tales, such as her famed production of ‘The Red Shoes’. Photograph: Anne Cusack/Los Angeles Times
On a recent Saturday afternoon in London, following several weeks filled with awful events, it felt like the city needed a break. Walking along the south bank of the Thames towards Shakespeare’s Globe – a gleaming white, thatched recreation of the original Elizabethan theatre – visitors from either direction could see a single word from some distance away, spelled out in a beacon of multicoloured lightbulbs: Love. In such a place, the sentiment seemed incongruous, but rather reassuring.
This is the theme of the second season from the Globe’s artistic director, Emma Rice, which, to no small amount of controversy, is also her last. Just a few months into the role last year, it emerged that the theatre’s board had taken exception to her use of artificial lighting and amplified sound on the Globe’s open-air stage, beginning with her riotous production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
To the outsider, this hardly seemed like a troublesome violation of code – unlike its 17th-century predecessor, the new Globe also features female performers to no apparent detriment – and so the row resembled a clash between opposing forces: with playful progressivism on one side, and embattled traditionalism on the other.
“I chose to leave,” Rice wrote, in an open letter to her successor (as yet unnamed, and, given the hubbub, unenvied), “because, as important and beloved as the Globe is to me, the board did not love and respect me back.” Still, her tone was characteristically effusive, encouraging and candid. She praised the theatre’s mission, its legacy, its staff and audience. This was less about a disagreement over using stage technology, she wrote, and more about trust and artistic freedom.
“I have learnt, never again, to allow myself to be excluded from the rooms where decisions are made,” she wrote.
What is remarkable, then, is that her final season, titled Summer of Love, does not seem like a bitterly ironic gesture. In fact this programme of classic comedies and tragedies – some reconceived – seems like a vindication: stories of longing and loss, told in this traditional setting in an absorbingly contemporary way. That Tristan & Yseult achieves this most easily should come as a source of particular satisfaction to Rice.
A huge success for Kneehigh when it opened first in 2003 and revived frequently since, it adapts the Celtic legend of passionate lovers with wit and style, glowing neon signs and crooner-club pop music, and it is now coming to the Galway International Arts Festival. It has an arch eye for myth in our lives and a fleet engagement with the audience of the day. Rarely, for example, has an English audience erupted with such joy to be conquered by an invading Irish king. As Morholt assures them: “It’s not all bad: you’re going to be part of Ireland and therefore part of Europe too.” It may be a Remain kind of crowd, an audience open to new perspectives.
“Well, absolutely,” Rice says, when we speak a few days later. “I find audiences are very nonjudgmental. They will accept what you tell them if it’s told with truth, joy and emotion. I don’t think audiences care if you have neon, or whether it makes logical sense; they want it to make emotional sense and to feel engaged. Tristan & Yseult is that magic show that does all of those things. But it does prove the Globe is a very malleable space. That building and that format are much stronger than any of the arguments about it. Much stronger.”
So is Rice’s belief in the potential of theatre. “We needed to tell people there’s a place they can come where we can share stories, and on some level they will give you hope and understanding. Theatres become temporary communities; they’re modern day churches, aren’t they? Tell us some stories that will help us through the dark times. I think that’s why theatre persists in a changing world. We love to come together in a group and listen to stories, some we know and some we don’t, to give us time to reflect on the world. And yeah, I wanted it to be a celebratory season. Because the opposite is unthinkable.”
There’s certainly reason to be cheerful. Rice came to the Globe with the same spirit she had developed at Kneehigh, intent on providing greater access to the theatre to those traditionally kept out. “Outward lies the way!” cries King Mark in Tristan & Yseult, and that too has been the Globe’s perspective under Rice. From day one she called for 50/50 gender splits and diverse casts for all her productions, staging Caroline Byrne’s all-Irish Taming of the Shrew during the centenary year of the Rising, hosting a new version of Cymbeline, titled Imogen, from director Matthew Dunster, which moved the play to the inner city and gave it greater female agency, and bringing cabaret energy to her own productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Twelfth Night.
‘Relevant and vibrant’This approach has proven immensely successful: the last season played to 93 per cent capacity, a particular achievement for a theatre that is reliant on its box office. “I love theatre,” says Rice. “And I want to make theatre that everyone can understand and everybody can enjoy. That doesn’t mean dumbing it down, that means making it relevant and making it vibrant. In my time as artistic director, definitely what I wanted to do was bring through distinct and relevant voices.”
In Tristan & Yseult, that spirit may be most conspicuous in the characters to whom Rice has entrusted the play; not the heroes of legend, but a chorus of nobodies. In the text they are known as Love Spotters, a herd of gormless misfits in anoraks, with NHS spectacles and binoculars. Like birdwatchers or trainspotters, they are spectators of passion but never the participants. It’s a wonderful comic conceit – they perform adorably awkward pop songs in The Club of the Unloved – but the idea also gathers in poignancy. How many of us will live life at the intense pitch of Tristan and Yseult’s all-consuming affair, or even get to live out the untroubled romance of an eternal pop song?
“The idea was so right that the work just fell out of us,” Rice remembers. Initially, she had intended to tell the story from the perspective of the Cornish saints, incorporating dragons on stilts, before deciding that the idea was awful. “It really liberated us all,” she says of the simpler approach. “It took away all the mythology and made everything real. Suddenly, we all knew this world and we understood the pathos of the story. The rest of us don’t walk through the Earth being passionately loved by somebody until they die. Most of us spend a large part of our lives on the outskirts.”
Much of the cast has remained with the production since that first show, 14 years ago (Rice originally played Whitehands, its narrator) and experiencing successive life stages together has made it a rich, sometimes heartrending piece to revisit.
“I think what we refreshed, actually, was our own understanding of it,” Rice says of its revivals. “We’ve lost parents since then, or marriages have broken up. We’re more experienced, sadder, more damaged! That’s one of the magic things about that show – we reinvest ourselves in it.”
If Tristan & Yseult allows for that, it is because its story can seem both ancient and refreshingly modern. Much of Rice’s career has been invested in fairytales, such as her famed production of The Red Shoes, and stories that have been put through a “Victorian mangle” or “Christian lens”, in which desires are thoroughly repudiated and punished. Tristan and Yseult are not blamed for the force of their attraction, though, and even betrayed partners take back their lovers.
Modern audienceThe periodic eruption of Wagner’s opera, from a rickety record player, may suggest that art, rather than life, is calling the shots, but the performance slips between worlds both mythic and recognisably real. “I find it incredibly resonant for a modern audience, trying to survive marriage or love affairs and trying to find a truthful and good path through life.”
Indeed, for all its recent turbulence, Rice is following an appropriately graced trajectory. Her next venture, just announced, is the foundation of a new company, Wild Children, which she will lead as soon as her time at the Globe ends. Supported by the English Arts Council, it will stage and tour large-scale ensemble work, Rice’s passion since Kneehigh, while also including a school to train a new generation of artists.
“It all happened very quickly,” Rice reflected of her unexpected career progression. “I didn’t see it coming. But my decision was to choose to be positive. On a personal level, I couldn’t cope with any more shock, sorrow, sadness . . . So I did choose love. And it pays off.”
Tristan & Yseult is at the Town Hall Theatre in Galway as part of the Galway International Arts Festival, July 18th to 22nd. Emma Rice will also take part in a Q&A on July 19 at 6pm. See giaf.ie