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New Shakespeare’s Globe Chief Talks Diversity, Gay Updates and Brexit

Emma Rice Shakespeare's Globe
Dan Wooller/REX/Shutterstock

Shakespeare’s Globe is all over the U.S. this summer: Tonight the London-based company opens “The Merchant of Venice,” starring Jonathan Pryce as Shylock, at the Lincoln Center Festival (where it runs July 20-24), and those who can’t see it there can catch it on the bigscreen as part of a nationwide series of Globe cinemacasts that also includes “Measure for Measure” and “Richard II” (dates vary by city). Meanwhile, L.A. will get a taste of Globe work at Hollywood Bowl concert “Shakespeare at the Bowl” (Aug. 30-Sept. 1). Emma Rice, the adventurous director (“Brief Encounter”) who took over the Globe in April, talked to Variety about how she’ll make her mark on the organization.

The Globe seems to keep strong ties with the U.S.
It’s to do with our American founder, Sam Wanamaker, and the history, but also it’s in the name, isn’t it? We’re a global organization. It’s important for us to have friends all over the world. In the last two years, we took a production of “Hamlet” to every country on the planet.

What’s been important to you, coming into this post?
I’m looking at 50/50 gender parity onstage, I’m looking at lots of diversity, and doing strong simple seasons of work with quite different directors. The Globe already is the most democratic building and organization in Britain. You can go in for £5. But there are still barriers, because many people find Shakespeare hard to understand, and think that it’s not for them. So I do want to extend that hand even more. I want people to understand that it’s accessible, that they will see a diverse company of actors onstage like you would on a London bus, and a variety of different styles of work.

For a long time, the Globe was synonymous with the “original practice” style, as seen in the 2013 Broadway stagings of “Twelfth Night” and “Richard III.” But so far, none of the productions under your tenure have used original practice.
Our mission is the exploration of Shakespeare in production. There’s no certainly no big mission not to do work in that Elizabethan style, but I haven’t made it a prerequisite. I’m not a purist. I think work is there to be retold and reinvented and re-enjoyed. These plays have been around for 400 years. They’re gonna survive. You’re going to do nothing to them that will hurt them. So why not?

In your first Globe production, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” you made Helena a man.
The relationship between Helena and Demetrius always bothered me, because in his right mind, with no drugs, Demetrius is so cruel to her. And she gives herself to him; her status is on the floor. Then at the end they marry and we’re supposed to somehow celebrate this partnership? So I made a very early and instinctive decision that it would become a gay relationship. I changed barely a word. I think I changed “lady” to “lover,” and that is pretty much it. It immediately made the piece so resonant, and political, to a tolerant, diverse London. There’s a gay marriage at the end, and there’s a kiss and the audience goes crazy. I’m certain Shakespeare would be cheering that.

The Globe runs up to three productions at once, at 13 performances a week. The company used to use the same cast of actors in multiple productions, but you don’t. Why?
Well, the actors aren’t exhausted, for one thing. But primarily, you can get very distinct productions. So the “Taming of the Shrew” that Caroline Byrne directed, set in Ireland in 1916 during the Easter Uprising, is an entirely Irish company, incredibly passionately telling a story about their own history through Shakespeare. You simply wouldn’t have gotten that if you’d been cross-casting. You get whole identities popping in each production. “Shrew” has these ideas of oppression and repression and what happens if you take away the voice. For me, Katherine is Ireland. I’ve goosebumps talking about it.

What do you think Brexit will mean for the Globe?
Certainly nobody expected it to happen, because everybody resigned, didn’t they? If they don’t know what’s going to happen, I certainly don’t. Speaking personally, not for the organization: I’m devastated. In this world where “Merchant of Venice” is about to open in New York, and it’s about hatred and it’s about division — the fact that in my country, more of us wanted to isolate ourselves instead of open our arms is devastating. However, I’m filled with a great surge of energy, especially in this position, where I can say, “Come here. We welcome the world.”

The Globe gets a lot of international audiences, doesn’t it?
We welcome visitors from all nationalities and really celebrate that. Sometimes on a bad day people dismiss the Globe as being a tourist audience, but I say: No, we’re an international, adventurous audience. Tell me a theater that doesn’t want that audience.