Return to the Globe

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Originally written for The Stage.

By now it is a truism that Shakespeare’s plays explore universal themes, but the Globe has taken this idea further than most. From its riverside base in London, the theatre has increasingly attempted to live up to its name and showcase Shakespeare’s work on an international level, both by touring its own productions and bringing in companies from around the world.

The pinnacle of the theatre’s international ambition to date was the 2012 Globe to Globe Festival, which invited productions of all 37 of Shakespeare’s plays in different languages, performed by companies from all over the world. Festival director Tom Bird describes the feat as a “huge, ambitious and difficult thing to pull off”.

The first challenge was to decide which countries and languages to include, which Bird and his team tackled by choosing to focus first and foremost on communities living in London. The other starting point was the desire to make the programme as varied as possible – “we always wanted to mix it up”.

The resulting festival attracted a diverse range of audiences, made up of regular visitors to the Globe and a huge influx of new theatregoers who came to see Shakespeare performed in their native languages. Bird quotes the astonishing figure that 81% of Globe to Globe audiences had never been to the Globe before, far exceeding the festival’s targets. The programme also “confounded expectations of what we think we can do with those plays”.

Following the festival’s success, the Globe has made a commitment to continuing this international strand and is once again bringing back three Globe to Globe companies this year: Indian company Arpana, Fundación Siglo de Oro from Spain, and Deafinitely Theatre, whose work uses British Sign Language.

Sunil Shanbag of Arpana, who will be bringing back their Gujarati version of All’s Well That Ends Well, describes the chance to perform at the Globe as a “once in a lifetime opportunity” – or twice in a lifetime, in their case.

“It’s a very giving space,” he says. “It’s the kind of place where audiences feel welcome; there was a lot of generosity. It’s a very different kind of relationship that you share with an audience at the Globe, so as I keep telling people, it’s very hard to fail at the Globe.”

For Shanbag, the priority was to make the play work for Gujarati audiences, but he has been overwhelmed by the response beyond the Gujarati community, especially from Shakespearean academics. He suggests that Arpana’s version, which drew on popular street theatre aesthetics, worked because “the very powerful emotions that run through Shakespeare’s plays – of love, hate, betrayal, loss – these are elements that are very similar to the elements that you find in Indian storytelling”.

Similarly, Fundación Siglo de Oro’s Rodrigo Arribas notes similarities between Shakespeare’s plays and the theatre of Spain’s Golden Age. After presenting Henry VIII in 2012, this year the company are performing Lope de Vega’s Punishment Without Revenge, which Arribas says shares Shakespeare’s “profound capacity for dissecting the psycho-emotional nature of human beings with their desires, ambitions, perversions, doubts”.

For Deafinitely Theatre, who presented their version of Love’s Labour’s Lost at the 2012 festival, Globe to Globe brought different challenges. “Our language is very dependent on eye contact and really focusing on each other,” says artistic director Paula Garfield, “but with the Globe you can’t do that. You have to focus on the whole audience, which is surrounding you, so it’s about projecting outwards, upwards, across.”

The company have found that the festival had a positive impact on their audiences, continuing their project of bridging the gap between deaf and hearing theatregoers. They hope to continue this with their new version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream this year, which has been chosen to be as accessible as possible.

Never shy of a challenge, the Globe’s latest international project involves touring Hamlet to every country in the world over the next two years, coinciding with the anniversaries of Shakespeare’s birth and death. Explaining the impetus, Bird says, “we wanted another huge ambitious project to really get our teeth into and to reflect the relationships we had all around the world”.

The project recently received criticism from Amnesty International for its decision to visit North Korea as part of the tour, but Bird insists that “every single country means every single country”. He explains, “we want to be inclusive and not exclusive and to have conversations with as many people as possible”.

As for Shakespeare’s ability to translate across cultures, can any play be truly universal? “We feel that there’s probably nowhere in the world that won’t enjoy engaging with Hamlet in some way,” Bird says. “The play is such an extraordinary story that we really feel like anyone can enjoy it.”

Photo: Ellie Kurttz

Vault Winner: Theatre Archives

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Originally written for The Stage.

Think of the archive and the images that typically jump to mind are of dusty vaults and painstakingly catalogued documents. This picture could not be further from the ephemeral immediacy of performance, which for many is defined by its liveness. But what about the traces that theatre leaves behind?

After the final curtain call, a production leaves in its wake a whole swathe of material: costumes, scripts, director’s notes, programmes, set designs. For many theatres and companies, collecting and saving these objects is a central part of their work, establishing huge archives for future practitioners, students, researchers and theatregoers. How these archives are assembled, managed and disseminated can therefore have a significant impact on the theatrical influences passed down to the next generation of artists and audiences.

For theatremakers, the archive can be an invaluable source of research and inspiration, as well as a reminder of the tradition in which they are working. Geraldine Collinge, Director of Events and Exhibitions at the Royal Shakespeare Company, places the emphasis on “seeing the archive and the collection as part of our ongoing body of work”, positioning their current productions within the context of the company’s history. She also explains that the archive forms an important part of the creative process, often acting as a first port of call for directors starting work on a new production.

Similarly, the archives at Shakespeare’s Globe are a vital part of the ongoing life of the theatre. As Head of Courses and Research Dr Farah Karim-Cooper explains, supporting the creative team in the researching of new productions is one of the key roles played by the theatre’s archival material. “The main thing about the archive is that it’s not just a repository,” she stresses, “it’s a place where research is actually produced and feeds into the work of the organisation.”

And theatre archives are not just a useful resource for practitioners. Kate Dorney, Curator of Modern and Contemporary Performance at the Victoria and Albert Museum, notes that the appeal of their collections is surprisingly broad. “It’s a fairly even split between practitioners and researchers,” she tells me. “Directors and actors often come in to see videos to prepare for shows or auditions, designers come in for inspiration, we get lots of students, academics, TV and film researchers, family historians, authors – all sorts.”

With the advance of ever more sophisticated digital archiving systems, however, the way in which this material is accessed is shifting. Although Collinger thinks the move to digital has not affected archives quite as dramatically as it has other areas of the theatre industry, she says that “what is transformational is that more people will have access to them and they won’t be so rarefied”. As archives gradually become digitised, the information that they contain is increasingly accessible without the need to go to a physical archive, which often involves a complex registration process.

Dorney equally points to a “process of democratisation” around the online archive and to new opportunities for engagement. The V&A, for instance, recently produced Played in Britain: Modern Theatre in 100 Plays as an iPad app, collecting material from its archives in an interactive format. “The idea of the app was to give you the experience of coming into the reading room but having everything at your fingertips,” says Dorney. “It’s our attempt to make people understand how you can relate the different areas of the collection to something that you’re interested in.”

For other organisations, digital now sits at the heart of their archiving project. Sarah Grochala joined Headlong as an Associate Artist in August 2012 to work with the theatre company on their online presence, both around the shows they are currently producing and their production archive. The idea, Grochala explains, is “about giving people who didn’t have a chance to see the show a chance to look at some of the material that went into it, above and beyond a script, and to be able to create an idea of it in their head”. This material might include production images, programme notes, set designs or lists of research used by the creative team. The aim is to “give people a sense of the ingredients, not the cake”.

Continuing in that spirit of democratisation, Grochala is also clear that Headlong sees this material as having a potentially wide reach. Talking about making information “immediate and easily accessible” through the web, Grochala identifies the production archives as being of interest to audiences as well as to practitioners and academics. “It’s a sort of deepening of audience engagement and making sure that that engagement can exist both before and after the show as well as during it,” she explains.

However, the digitising of the archive brings challenges as well as opportunities. Grochala emphasises that Headlong’s project is a slow one, involving a painstaking process of recovery and curation, while Dorney doubts that another app will be produced by the V&A in the near future simply because of how time-consuming it is. Money is another issue, as the process of digitising is not cheap. As Karim-Cooper explains, it’s a project that “requires huge amounts of funding”, which for a non-subsidised theatre like the Globe forms a significant barrier. The desire to digitise is clear; it is simply a case of time and funds.

Despite all these digital developments, though, Collinge is doubtful that digitised archives will ever fully supplant the real thing. “That moment when an archivist pulls the First Folio out and you’re looking at those pages – there’s something very special there,” she says. “Admittedly having a digitised First Folio would be wonderful, but I think it would be a different and a new experience rather than one that would replace physical archives.”

Photo: RSC Archive. From the 1981 production of All’s Well That Ends Well.

Samantha Spiro

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Originally written for IdeasTap.

Samantha Spiro has acted in everything from Shakespeare to musical theatre, as well as establishing herself as a familiar face on BBC Two sitcom Grandma’s House. As she prepares to play Lady Macbeth at the Globe, she shares advice on maintaining a healthy career balance and not losing faith…

How difficult was it to make the transition from drama school into the theatre industry?

As far as drama school is concerned, the brilliant thing is that you just get to do lots of plays. I was very lucky that my first job was at the Open Air Theatre at Regent’s Park, so I continued in a similar vein. In those days you got to do two Shakepeare plays and a musical, so I played Third Witch in Macbeth and Peaseblossom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and everything from a canary to a courtesan in The Boys From Syracuse, which was the musical.

It felt very much like the old days of rep, which I never experienced because there were very few theatres still doing it. I was very lucky to have those opportunities to get into that kind of environment very early on.

You have described the role of Barbara Windsor in Cleo, Camping, Emmanuelle and Dick as one of your big breaks. What impact did that production have on your career?

Because it was at the National [Theatre] and we filmed it, it had the knock-on effect of opening doors. But it didn’t feel like it at the time, it didn’t feel immediate. I don’t feel there’s been any one moment in my life where suddenly everything’s burst into technicolour and everybody has been knocking at my door. It’s been more slowly-but-surely.

How do you maintain a balance between theatre and television work?

I felt for many years that theatre was my main source of employment. But in the back of my mind I knew that there probably was a better balance. Although the worlds do feel very separate, I think that the more you’re seen on television, the more people want to come and see you in the theatre, and the more chances of you getting better roles. It’s only really in much more recent years that I feel as though I’m doing a bit of both. I absolutely love it, but I’m always eager to get back to theatre. 

Is there added pressure with taking on an iconic role like Lady Macbeth?

It is an iconic role, but I think you just have to free yourself of those pressures. Most of my favourite actors have played this part brilliantly, but when you come to it you’ve got to think of it as a new play and pretend that nobody’s played this part before, because otherwise you do drive yourself mad and you’ll lose your nerve.

Do you have any advice for young actors?

Try and work as much as you possibly can and try and create as much as you possibly can. If the acting work isn’t coming in then keep active by writing or by trying to get in on the production side of things. Just keeping at it if you’re passionate about doing it is the best thing, because there’s no logic. As long as you’re part of the business, I think things can happen at any moment. To not lose faith.

In Focus: Creating a back story for Lady Macbeth

Joe Millson – who’s playing Macbeth – and I agreed very much on what our back story is. The back story for us is about having had a child who died within the first few weeks of its life. 

I’m approaching playing Lady Macbeth as a woman who had post-natal depression and had evil thoughts about her baby, and then the baby does die, so she’s left with this huge, gaping hole in her life. And her husband feels guilt towards her and wants to try and help her out of this.

Going through birth, going through post-natal depression, and then going through the loss of a child has left her with a chasm to fill. That then gives me the springboard or catalyst for what happens in the play.