Cheryll Duncan: Reflections from the Globe Theatre

This summer the WSG annual outing was to the Globe Theatre, where a Study Day had been organised by WSG member Miriam Al Jamil in association with Globe Education. The event consisted of a visit to the theatre’s Library and Archive, followed by a performance of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (on until 5 August). WSG member Cheryll Duncan reflects on the trip:

The Globe’s Library and Archive is a research facility for academic scholars and theatre practitioners: the Library comprises several collections of books broadly concerning Shakespeare studies and theatre history, while the Archive’s holdings relate entirely to the history of the current theatrical site. In view of the pivotal role that research played in the Globe reconstruction project from the outset, and its continued importance in shaping the theatre’s work today, it comes as something of a surprise to find the collections are housed in a very modest building indeed. There are plans for a new, purpose-built library in the future, but with current space at a premium there is little opportunity for even the most significant items to be exhibited. We were therefore fortunate in that an interesting cross-selection of materials had been put together especially for our visit by Archivist Victoria Lane.

Mark Rylance’s costume for Olivia, Twelfth Night (2012)

A magnificent black velvet dress worn by Mark Rylance in the role of Olivia (Twelfth Night, 2012 production) from the ‘Original Practices’ Clothes Archive was the most striking item on display. This collection consists of garments created from historically-informed textiles and techniques for use in specific original practice productions. As the Globe’s first Artistic Director, Rylance is a dominant presence in the archives; among the more personal items available for us to look at was a letter from Eddie Redmayne in 2002, regretfully declining the role he had been offered because he wanted to complete his Cambridge degree. We watched an extract from the Moving Image Archive, which holds recordings of all productions at the Globe and the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse (only available to view on site). Several performances of each play are recorded using multiple static cameras set at different angles to the stage, thereby capturing not only a range of audience viewpoints but the arc of an entire production.

Other materials from the Performance Archive include prompt books, photographs, posters, programmes and press reviews, a selection of which was assembled for us to peruse. Among the many interesting books from the library collections is Salvador Dali’s illustrated Macbeth, Ellen Terry’s Four Lectures on Shakespeare (with her own annotations), and recent publications by the Globe’s in-house academic researchers, including Will Tosh whose particular interest concerns gender identity in the early modern period.

As an unexpected bonus, English folklore expert Jon Kaneko-James gave us a tour of the theatre’s current exhibition. This comprises an art installation and exhibits relating to Renaissance ideas about alchemical structures and transformations, which is a particular interest of Rylance and informed the experimental 1991 production of The Tempest. Jon also gave a fascinating talk about alchemy, emphasizing its significance as a democratizing force and citing the large number of self-taught women practitioners in Elizabethan England.

The day concluded with a performance of Twelfth Night, part of the Globe’s ‘Summer of Love’ season and the last to be directed by Emma Rice. Her view of the play will not endear her to Shakespearean traditionalists, yet the result was insightful on a number of different levels and hugely engaging, as was testified by the rapt attention of a packed (and largely youthful) audience.

This production takes the kind of irreverent approach to Shakespeare that an audience of the eighteenth century might have enjoyed; there are lots of amusing interpolations to the text, and the dramatic structure is subverted by an invented Prologue depicting a shipwreck, which contextualises Act 1: scene 2. From the opening dance routine where white-clad sailors sing the 1979 hit song ‘We are Family’ by Sister Sledge, music plays a very significant role in this production; Ian Ross’s score is an expertly executed tour de force ranging from Highland jigs to calypsos, hard rock, disco, punk, folk, Argentinian tango and much more. Such eclecticism surely keeps faith with Shakespeare, who calls for a wide variety of music in Twelfth Night – not as incidental to the play, but as integral to its larger dramatic considerations (though for a dissenting opinion, but still rapturous review, see Dominic Cavendish in The Telegraph).

In the same way, Rice’s lengthy afterpiece with its semaphore dance routine might be seen as a homage to the traditional Elizabethan jig, though in this case with music in place of the traditional spoken text. The production plays on the gender fluidity that lies at the heart of the play by, for example, casting Feste (performed by impressive bass-baritone Le Gâteau Chocolat) as a bearded, be-sequined drag queen. The role of Malvolio is taken by the diminutive Katy Owen, dressed as a moustachioed boy and sporting a pronounced Welsh accent. There are pantomimic elements, certainly – the cheeky entrance of Sir Andrew Aguecheek (who wears a pink Pringle sweater and talks with a lisp) is itself worth the price of a ticket – but there is much more to this production than mere high-spirited, anarchic misrule. I enjoyed it immensely, but also found it illuminating and deeply thought-provoking, and have already booked to see it again.

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