Mornings and evenings are getting brighter and the rain is continuing, sure signs that it must be the start of the great British summer. In the world of seasonal London theatre this can mean only one thing, the start of the Globe season. Matthew Amer discussed the finer points of Shakespeare with Globe associate director Tim Carroll, who is directing Richard II and Dido, Queen of Carthage in this year’s summer season.
The decision taken by the Globe theatre to present a season of plays based around the idea of regime change has been proved very astute considering the turmoil in world politics which has overshadowed most events this year. The plays chosen by the Globe – Richard II, Richard III, Dido, Queen of Carthage, Edward II and The Taming of the Shrew – are likely to sound an emphatic chord with the audiences who enjoy them this summer. A lucky (if that is the right word for this situation) coincidence it wasn’t. “Mark [Rylance, artistic director of the Globe] was very interested in following up the season last year, which was of very popular plays with more political plays. Then came this idea of regime change as a buzz word that was going around last autumn. There is a definite sense that one wouldn’t have to make any explicit connections between the past and the present to see that these plays have an urgent relevance.” There is clearly a particular relevance in the opening play of the season, Richard II, which Carroll directs. “Richard II asks the questions: When is it right to overthrow a legitimate ruler? When is it right to use violence to do that? At what point can you say you have overthrown that ruler? Is it necessary to kill that ruler in order to secure the new regime? I doubt there has ever been a time that those questions weren’t alive.”
It would be fair to say that there is more than a little resonance in the choice of plays that does not need to be highlighted to be appreciated. “The thing I’ve found more and more is that audiences here make all sorts of interesting connections. I never like to prejudge those connections for them because I’m always intrigued when I hear them myself and I’d rather not limit their possible responses by saying where I think this connects with the modern world.”
The Globe Theatre Company is quite unique in its outlook. Their lead actor, although the company is considered as an ensemble, is also their director, while the usual theatrical terms associated with a production such as director and costume designer are replaced with Master of Play and Master of Costume. “The title [Master of Play] is used simply to remind us directors that ‘play’ should be involved. There is an attempt in the use of the titles to get away from the hierarchical model of director as strange hybrid of guru, king, tyrant, father, psychologist, psychiatrist.” Carroll takes the role of Master of Plays for both Richard II and Dido, Queen of Carthage. Dido, which follows the classic Greek story of Dido and Aeneas, is performed by a small mixed company with modern practices, a stark contrast with Richard II, an original practices production of the all male company which has Mark Rylance playing the lead. It is an odd and possibly uncomfortable position for Carroll to find himself in, but one many have dreamed of, telling his boss what to do. “Directing your boss is a potentially uncomfortable situation. But we’ve done it three times already now. It’s only when people get stressed and tense, which is going to happen sometime, that there is the potential for ‘are you getting bad tempered at me as an actor or as an artistic director?’ So it’s definitely a tricky thing but it’s not a big deal.”
"To try to understand the Elizabethans is as important to me as to try to understand the Iraqis."
The unique nature of the Globe as a theatrical entity does not stop with the names given to different positions within the company. Much of the interest in its productions is created through the use of original practices, meaning that the plays are performed in a way that is closer to the way they were performed in Elizabethan times than Shakespeare was to his codpiece. “The Globe represents the first thoroughgoing attempt to recreate Elizabethan staging ever since the second Globe was knocked down. The excitement for me about original practices is that it is an extremely radical approach. It really blows the plays wide open for me. Rather than having to think in now clichéd terms of ‘which modern conflict should I suggest with the costumes’, ‘which country did I last go on holiday to so I can set it there for a bit of exotic flavour’ or ‘which themes of the play shall I underline so that the critics have a couple of nice, easy sentences to write’, you can ignore all of that and search for a thoroughly realised and satisfying world in which everything that’s in the text really finds its proper partner, so that when you talk about a rapier you really draw a rapier.”
Carroll is also quick to dispel any fears about the effects of original practices. “[Original practice] in no way does what people fear it will do, which is to put a kind of gauze between the audience and the action, a membrane of historical, nostalgic, authentic heritage. I think that’s pea-brained, frankly, to talk about it as nostalgic. Being excited by another culture, whether it is separated from you by geography or time, is simply what it means to be a human, and to try to understand the Elizabethans is as important to me as to try to understand the Iraqis or any other group from whom we feel separated, culturally or in any other way.”
Again, this year, the Globe is setting out to prove its radical reputation, a reputation Carroll is clearly very proud of, by accompanying the now established all-male productions with a new all-female troupe. In Carroll’s view the addition, although not authentic to Shakespeare’s day, shares much of the authentic Elizabethan spirit. “The whole convention of having men playing women relies on a wonderful and invigorating degree of audience engagement. You ask the audience to believe it and you remind them occasionally that you are asking them to believe it. You remind them that you are a boy playing a girl playing a boy. The audience loves to stay on board with you, they want to invest their imagination in it. If the Elizabethan plays were written to rely on audience gameness then why not ask our modern audience for that same gameness in agreeing to believe these women are men.”
"The audience seemed to think that they had to be fake Elizabethans and shout out ‘Hey nonny no’ all the time."
As Carroll rightly points out, watching a play at the Globe, be it Shakespeare or not, is an experience quite unlike any other because of its exposure to the elements and its circular shape. “When a play works at the Globe it is like nowhere else because it has a sense of shared achievement between the actors and the audience which creates this virtual circle of ever expanding energy and excitement. You either get the fantastic view of the stage or you get an okay view of the stage and a fantastic view of the rest of the audience, which is kind of exciting as well.” Has the virtual circle of ever expanding energy and excitement ever so invigorated an audience that levels of control and hysteria got out of hand? “I was a bit worried by the audience who seemed to think that they had to be fake Elizabethans and shout out ‘Hey nonny no’ all the time. You can shout something out but by and large it’s not going to be as interesting as what’s happening on stage.
Carroll has been a Master of Play at the Globe for the last 5 seasons, directing Augustine’s Oak (1999), The Two Noble Kinsmen (2000), Macbeth (2001), Twelfth Night and The Golden Ass (2002) but he is aware that he will not always work at this most exciting of venues. What does he feel he will take away from working in such a unique atmosphere? “A little random element is a good thing and a little loss of control is a good thing. It’s that risk that excites the audience. You shouldn’t try to control their reaction to everything by telling them how to feel at various moments.”
In a season based on a change of regime and with the introduction of a new all-female cast, life is certainly not dull at the Globe this season. But with a hey nonny no thrown in for fun and Fate playing his games of chance, who knows what else might happen.