This Wooden O2

The opening of Shakespeare’s Globe in 1997 marked the start of a revolution.

The revolution was against the then firmly entrenched idea that actors and stages should be lit, while audiences were required to sit pacified and unengaged in darkness.

These were not the conditions in which popular theatre in this country had begun and not the conditions for which Shakespeare had written most of his plays.

The revolution was intended to restore these original conditions of performance.

This is a different concept to what became known as original practices, where costume and all-male casting attempt to recreate some of the visual detail of Elizabethan performances.

The original conditions of performance are recreated by the basic physical architecture of the reconstructed Globe theatre, its lighting and acoustic. These conditions apply regardless of whether an individual production is original practices or modern dress.

The manifesto of this revolution has been proclaimed in different ways by different people during the Globe’s history, but perhaps the most succinct expression of it is currently right there in the Globe’s description of itself on its website.

The Shakespeare’s Globe website About Us page describes the theatre as: dedicated to the exploration of Shakespeare’s work and the playhouse for which he wrote.

This phrase neatly summarises how the recreation of the original performance conditions that existed in the playhouse for which he wrote has always been integral to the Globe’s exploration of Shakespeare’s plays.

The environment of the original Globe theatre was the essential framework that shaped the playwright’s dramatic works.

He wrote most of his plays for daylight and the reconstructed Shakespeare’s Globe was purpose-built to recreate that experience. This simple fact was the core of the Globe experiment.

As an article in The Economist put it in 1999:

Actors and audiences are discovering anew the real conditions for which Shakespeare wrote—a daylit outdoor amphitheatre, with a thrust stage and no stage lighting to mark a division between them.

This was a revolution directed principally against stage lighting and lighting design because these things played no part in the creation of Shakespeare’s plays.

The experiment yielded results. Practitioners and audiences alike discovered how shared light made a difference to how the plays worked in performance. This growing body of knowledge was incorporated into the curriculum that Globe Education imparted to students.

It rapidly became apparent that the recreation of the original Globe environment and the shared light uniting stage and audience unlocked a quality in Shakespeare’s plays that otherwise remained hidden.

Shared light created a powerful bond between actors and audience to the extent that the spectators became an integral part of the performance rather than passive bystanders.

Audiences were able to appreciate the Henry IV plays in which Falstaff used shared light to make the spectators part of his gang. Shared light enabled King Henry V to address the assembled horde of groundlings as the English army, effectively making the whole theatre yard part of the performance space.

Shakespeare’s dramatic works had finally returned to their natural habitat. And they flourished.

This season’s introduction of stage lighting and sound amplification was therefore completely counterproductive.

In the same way that original musical instruments are used to recreate authentic sounds in an orchestra, so the Globe was seen as a reconstruction of the original instrument for which the music of Shakespeare’s plays was written.

This explains why one founding donor of the Globe, having seen Emma Rice’s production of Dream, was quoted as comparing the use of lighting design in the theatre to “screwing an electric pickup to a Stradivarius”.

The parallel was a precise one and the comparison of Shakespeare’s Globe with a Stradivarius violin was deliberate and telling.

Shakespeare did not write for lighting design or megawatt sound systems. The introduction of this technology defeats the purpose of building the Globe in the first place.

The Globe management would not get away with removing the candles from the candlelit Playhouse next door, because its mode of lighting is obviously integral to its function and purpose.

In Sam Wanamaker’s vision for the main Globe theatre, daylight (and artificial daylight for evening performances) was considered equally essential and non-negotiable.

If audiences want to see Shakespeare performed with stage lighting and sound amplification, they can do so anywhere in the world. The Globe has spent nearly two decades offering something different and more authentic, true to its founder’s vision and proud of its revolutionary distinctiveness.

Emma Rice described her changes as “a bit of TLC” – tender loving care. To which many people have reacted “Love? Her affections do not that way tend.”

How can anyone claim to love the Globe when they are undoing what makes it truly special?

It was quite saddening to see an actor in the subsequent Wonder Season production of Shrew spotlit on the Globe stage trying to connect with an audience he mostly could not see.

Using lighting to tell an audience where to look instead of having actors earn audience attention is a disservice to both audience and actors, as shared light advocate Ralph Cohen of the American Shakespeare Center has explained.

Where once shared light created a democratic space binding actors and audience together into one unit, now lighting design separates the two in a way Shakespeare would not have recognised.

Sound amplification was also used in Shrew to absurd effect. All the musicians in the gallery were miked up, so that when two of them played down on stage during the preshow, the music appeared to be coming from the giant speaker stacks and not from their instruments.

Musicians at the Globe have never needed amplification, indeed the Globe to Globe Festival in 2012 had positively encouraged all the visiting companies to bring their own musical instruments, which most of them did and they all worked perfectly without amplification.

How can these new developments be described as progress?

Sam Wanamaker was a revolutionary and what is being touted as progress is in fact a reactionary step backwards.

Globe has been a success because it has offered something different. It has spent the past 19 years building an audience and a brand based on its founding principles with continuity across two artistic directors who both accepted the basic outline of the Globe project.

That consensus has now been ruptured.

Dispensing with Sam Wanamaker’s vision for the Globe is not a good place for them to be as they approach their 20th anniversary in 2017.

Next year will provide an opportunity to look back at the project’s achievements.

Does the Globe want to celebrate that anniversary by terminating the experiment to whose fulfilment Sam Wanamaker devoted decades of his life?

Now that there’s a gap in the market for a replica Elizabethan theatre devoted to exploring Shakespeare in original conditions of performance, will someone, a visionary, have the courage to build one?

Or are we expected to acquiesce in the transformation of ‘this wooden O’ into ‘this wooden O2’?


Update: On 25 October 2016 Shakespeare’s Globe announced that Emma Rice would be leaving the post of artistic director in April 2018 and reasserted the primacy of Sam Wanamaker’s original shared light project

Click to access statement_regarding_the_artistic_direction_of_shakespeare_s_globe_final.pdf