History, Politics and Performance: the Pop-Up Globe

I have complicated feelings about the Pop-Up Globe.

The Pop-Up Globe is a monument to willpower and whimsy. The fact that something so elaborate that was supposed to be a once-only experiment has found an ongoing life shows that there is an audience for this very special kind of theatre-as-immersion-adventure work. There is plenty to enjoy in the Shakespeare itself, but this is actually just a portion of an experience that has significant overlap with visiting the St Ives Medieval Faire or the Warwick Castle Dungeon tour. I refuse to countenance the idea that it’s not a valid thing to do to swoosh up some performance with a bit of history and a bucketload of playfulness.

The stage is set for the ABC’s Q and A

For a long time I feared I wouldn’t get to see it with my own eyes as, despite being largely based on Sydney scholar Tim Fitzpatrick’s work, it seemed only New Zealand had the right combination of imagination and gumption to simply decide that such a thing could be done. When it finally came to Sydney the atmosphere was fizzing, and the productions of Macbeth and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (I didn’t make it to the other two) were lively and injected with real spirit. Even if the performances themselves were uneven and a bit clumsy, analysing them in the way of a conventional theatre review seemed an inappropriate model; rather than assessing them as performances of plays, it seems more fair to talk about attending as an event. I would say the experience of being there, in that space with the actors and audience, was joyous and energising and I truly loved it.

So I write as someone who was delighted that this event happened, and at its success, when I say that I wish is was possible to have all this without the same, infuriating limitations that continue to dog other forms of theatre. Sadly, Artistic Director and instigator of the entire project, Miles Gregory, has a horrible record when it comes to hiring women in positions of creative control, and no sense at all that this is something he should be trying to address or correct. The way he brushes off anyone who tries to engage him on the issue is bile-stimulating. Interviewed by Katie Prior here, he is being presented with thoughtful questions by a clearly smarter, better informed person, and does nothing but slide past her enquiries. In the end the only answer he has as to why he set up and then continued to use all-male companies, and gave plum jobs to white, male directors imported from overseas instead of creating opportunities for local talent, is that it was his show and that’s how he likes to do it. In addition, when the Pop-Up Globe came to Australia every director involved in the four productions that toured was male.

“Dr Gregory wasn’t able to be reached for a response, but a spokesperson for him said last night the decision to use all-male casts adhered to tradition as only men acted during Shakespeare’s time.” Radio New Zealand

No, Gregory’s company of men does not ‘adhere to tradition’. It would be excellent if we could clear up in one final go the belief that a company is doing something historic or period accurate if they only hire male actors. The professional stage of Shakespeare’s day never cast adult male actors in female roles, there was a very codified system in place whereby those roles were exclusively the territory of the apprentices, i.e. teenage boys. The differences between what the Pop-Up Globe company, or Shakespeare’s Globe under Mark Rylance, or Edward Hall’s Windmill Theatre, are doing and what Early Modern London theatre was doing are so many and so shaping as to make a nonsense of such claims. Socially, boys were broadly grouped with women as ‘not men’, until they attained their majority. We also can’t separate who the audience is from the transactional process of communication between the stage and the audience. Elizabethan audiences had no cultural reference point of drag shows, pantomime dames, or footy show sketch comedy. Now your audience comes to the show carrying that conventional history, the presentation of adult men imitating women can’t be observed unmoored from that background. There is no evidence that it was inherently funny to Elizabethans to see boys play women, so if your production is purposefully directed to get a laugh from seeing a man in a wig and a frock enter as Helena, you are ipso facto not being historically accurate. If the production was really reflecting the experience of watching an Elizabethan performance by doing this, it wouldn’t rely on the audience seeing humour in characters merely appearing on stage looking like a man in a dress.

To examine more closely a specific example that shows the have-your-cake-and-eat-it attitude of claiming historical authority while at the same time not giving a toss about historical accuracy, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream Helena was wearing 19th-century bloomers under her skirt, and revealing them was repeatedly used to generate laughs. This is also a standard (pretty lazy) source of humour: old fashioned underwear = funny. But no one who wore the kind of period dress on which the rest of her costume was based would have ever worn underwear like that. Now, I don’t care a jot if you want to mix your periods when staging a silly, non-naturalistic comedy, in fact I might even say it’s my preferred approach. But it’s an expressly non-Elizabethan laugh to get, and it’s hypocritical to go for that that laugh while simultaneously justifying its setup on historic grounds. You can’t do that and at the same time exclude a category of artist from your work on the grounds of ‘tradition’.

On this Penny Ashton is well worth reading in full: “to use historical oppression as an excuse for some fun modern oppression, well that can fuck right off.”

Showing a bullish unwillingness to learn from feedback with the project’s most recent season, that Gregory thought he was the best choice to direct Measure for Measure is insulting. This is a play that was given deeply patriarchal productions for decades, and is only just now starting to be seen for the challenge it can be to sexually abusive social convention, when given the opportunity for the right performance choices. That a man who doesn’t even feel he has an obligation to respond respectfully to a female reporter, or address issues of equity in his practice, feels confident that he can handle the intricacies of a play that speaks to female experience of not being heard by men just trumpets arrogance.

I adore the outreach aspect of this project, every bit as much as the aesthetic of mixing cheesy painted trompe l’oeil with bare scaffolding and plywood. But the need to dump on the work everyone else is doing (their Australian tour pre-publicity relied heavily on preaching the line that teaching and performing Shakespeare in Australia is done badly, which is both untrue and unnecessary), to hypocritically claim and yet abandon how history can inform practice, and to shut out people who can help you, diminishes the entire enterprise. There is much more to unpack in all the issues I am addressing too superficially here, and I can see places it may appear I am contradicting myself (simultaneously suggesting that history does and doesn’t matter, for instance). But the point here is that theatre is how we interpret the world, and no version of it can abdicate from the responsibility of being open to being better.

5 thoughts on “History, Politics and Performance: the Pop-Up Globe

  1. It did not seem to me, at all, that you were contradicting yourself. I thought you separated the issues clearly, and your logic flowed along with noticeably matching emotion. My sympathy to all the Australian theatre people who would have been looking forward to the pop-up experiences.
    PS: Loved Ashton’s quote too.

  2. Interesting read — I knew that the female roles were played by male teenagers but I hadn’t thought about the way we bring our modern “drag show” awareness to watching that sort of thing. Very convincing post.

    • Original practices research is a fantastic field, but the people who are really good at it always work with an eye to which aspects you can’t recreate, audience perception in particular.

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