Hired by the theatre’s board of directors in 2016 the apparent reasons for her departure have been well publicised.
Her introduction of amplified sound and artificial light went against the desires of the board who preferred the shared light of original Elizabethan theatre.
However, her appointment courted controversy as soon as it was announced. Having directed only one of Shakespeare’s plays in the past, she told interviewers that his plays often made her sleepy when she tried to read them, and she didn’t understand it, and that shewas not ashamed to say that she didn’t think everyone had to understand every single word.
After the announcement of her departure, Rice suggested that her Nottingham comprehensive school education was another barrier to the board granting her their confidence – and that potentially problematic link between education and Shakespeare is echoed by another theatre practitioner, Debs Newbold.
The renowned actor and storyteller, who brings her show King Lear Retold to Greenwich next month having previously performed it on tour and at the Globe, credits her love of Shakespeare to the venue, citing its ability to correct an education that failed to connect her with the playwright’s work.
“I grew up and went through school feeling, like many people around me, that Shakespeare was not for me. Not even my university education managed to dislodge that prejudice completely.
Then, working at the Globe, I began to hear him spoken out loud by people who were passionate about him, and I also had the opportunity to speak his words out loud myself, to feel them, and play with them.
“Slowly, I got my ‘ear in’ to his work. And a world opened up.”
That experience, of Shakespeare suddenly coming to life for people, is something I have seen year after year at Greenwich, working as a host venue for the Shakespeare Schools Festival.
Newbold attributes the delay in her discovery of Shakespeare to the way in which he is taught in schools, but the annual festival does a huge amount to challenge that.
I have seen primary and secondary schoolchildren from all backgrounds revel in his language, creating a future generation of theatre-makers and audiences who are not afraid to tackle his plays.
It is initiatives like this festival, along with the type of theatre made by Rice and Newbold, that will keep Shakespeare alive for the majority long into the future, and that is how it should be.
Shakespeare’s plays should not be relegated to the status of artefacts in a museum. They are living, breathing stories but they rely on their link to a current audience to survive.
Just as Emma Rice chose to bring modern light and sound to Shakespeare’s plays, so Debs Newbold brings her own words to his texts, but both make shows that can be enjoyed by contemporary audiences, by everyone, shows that are respectful of their origins but that celebrate theatre’s relationship with a modern audience and demand a living future for Shakespeare by making his work available and enjoyable for all.
“I think I make very accessible work,” said Rice in another interview. “That doesn’t mean it’s not
sophisticated or meaningful or intelligent, but accessible.”
“His work is for everyone,” Debs concluded, “and I feel that by mixing his amazing poetry with my own words and re-telling these stories in a direct, informal but deeply connected way, I am doing my little bit to open the door to that world a little wider.”
“Those that already have the confidence as much as those who don’t.”
James Haddrell is the artistic and executive director of Greenwich Theatre