Blind to Race, Gender and Disability, Shakespeare’s Globe Goes a New Way

LONDON — Shakespeare’s Globe may have had a spring cleaning, but don’t for a second think that the deservedly popular playhouse is playing it safe.

Posted Updated

, New York Times

LONDON — Shakespeare’s Globe may have had a spring cleaning, but don’t for a second think that the deservedly popular playhouse is playing it safe.

You could be forgiven for expecting a conservative, back-to-basics approach following the controversial artistic tenure of Emma Rice, who parted company with the theater in 2017 after only two years. But if “As You Like It” and “Hamlet,” the opening productions by the new artistic director, Michelle Terry, are any gauge, the Globe looks poised to continue provoking — albeit in new ways. Already, Terry’s tenure promises to throw norms to the wind by casting without regard to gender, race or ethnicity. Eyebrows have been raised, but there has been hefty applause as well.

Rice had ruffled feathers by modernizing a space that Globe hard-liners defend fiercely. They took issue with her use of amplification, contemporary lighting rigs and a pop aesthetic that introduced Beyoncé's “Single Ladies,” for instance, into her Bollywood-inflected “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Her “Twelfth Night” included the London drag artist Le Gateau Chocolat as a disco diva Feste.

No less provocative was Rice’s candid admission that she found Shakespeare difficult — a sentiment she expressed in her first news conference as artistic director and in various interviews.

Terry, by contrast, has spoken from the outset of an apprenticeship to Shakespeare that began when she was a child. And because she, unlike Rice, is an actress — and an Olivier Award-winning one at that — she comes to her current position steeped in the playwright’s work. The result is that you feel at every turn a direct engagement with a dramatist whom Rice, by contrast, sometimes seemed at odds with, as if the verse were an irritation to be overcome.

Her successor has no such qualms. Only three years ago, Terry was a memorable Rosalind at the Globe in “As You Like It,” the play she chose to open this first season; the new “Hamlet,” meanwhile, presents her in excellent command of the title role. (The productions will run in repertory through Aug. 26.) Among a deliberately varied company of 12, the roles are cast gender-blind, colorblind and disability-blind all at once: Celia, Rosalind’s devoted sidekick, is played by the enormously expressive deaf actress Nadia Nadarajah, who signs her lines — only some of which are translated. (So lucid is she as a performer that the character’s intentions are entirely clear throughout.) Already, some have bristled. Terry “does have one bee in her bonnet: gender-neutral casting,” wrote Christopher Hart in The Sunday Times of London, in a review that otherwise found much to admire. The British theater tends these days to be immune to such gripes and to carry on as before. Writing in the right-wing Daily Mail in April, critic Quentin Letts questioned the presence of a black actor, Leo Wringer, in a little-known 1700 comedy retitled for the occasion “The Fantastic Follies of Mrs. Rich.” He was quickly shouted down. (The Royal Shakespeare Company, producers of the play in question, replied by condemning his “blatantly racist attitude.”)

Terry, in keeping with the times, is clearly widening the casting policy to be as inclusive as possible.

More contentious about Terry’s double bill is the determined absence of the kind of guiding directorial hand that you expect these days, not least in Shakespeare. (Someone like Robert Icke, as when he directed Andrew Scott in a surveillance-heavy “Hamlet,” makes his imprint evident at every turn.)

These productions were co-directed by Federay Holmes and Elle While, but feel very much as if they are being worked through moment by moment, without the sort of overarching concept that Terry may be determined to resist.

As it is, it’s difficult to imagine a sparkier, more deeply felt Hamlet than she is here, her withdrawn, black-clad presence at the start giving way to a jaunty, clownish demeanor that never for a second loses sight of the grieving character’s “noble heart.” She delivers “to be or not to be,” for example, seated on the lip of the stage, her legs dangling into the audience as she shifts her gaze to take in the expanse of the house, and makes the soliloquy, like all of her others, an extension of the character’s thoughts; I’ve rarely heard these rhetorical standard-bearers presented so off the cuff, as if Hamlet’s agile and restless mind were discovering a gift for language in the process of speaking. (Spontaneity is the order of the day: “Is it very cold?” Terry’s Hamlet asked a recent matinee audience, as it started to rain.)

The supporting cast includes the excellent Richard Katz, whose Polonius suggests a van Dyck painting come to life. In a nice touch, the actor seems to struggle to recall what it is his character has to say about “brevity,” pausing before remembering that it is “the soul of wit.”

If “Hamlet” falls off somewhat after the intermission, “As You Like It” is stronger in its second half. Terry reappears in a trio of small (male) roles, but the bulk of the comedy is gracefully managed by Jack Laskey as Rosalind: a man playing a woman disguised for much of the play as a man, as would have been the case, of course, in Shakespeare’s day. He and Nadarajah's antic Celia share a beguiling complicity, as do Nadarajah, playing Guildenstern in “Hamlet,” and Pearce Quigley as a comically lugubrious Rosencrantz. (The notion of these two speaking a shared language unavailable to the others makes sense within the context of the play.)

I’m less sure about the diminutive Bettrys Jones — a woman — as the lovesick Orlando, less for reasons of gender and more because she and Laskey (himself an Orlando at the Globe in 2009) never arrive at that place of mutual attraction that can make this the giddiest Shakespeare play of all; no other of his comedies, for instance, ends with four conjoined pairs of lovers.

Still, when Laskey wafts into view near the start of “As You Like It,” his easeful gait as Rosalind recalls the celebrated Olivia on this same stage that the Globe’s first artistic director, Mark Rylance, ended up taking in triumph to Broadway in 2013 (and for which he won a Tony the following year).

The Globe at its best has always celebrated reinvention, and there’s every evidence that Terry understands this and sees it as an opportunity to do what the theater does best: play.

Production Notes:

‘Hamlet’ and ‘As You Like It’

Both co-directed by Federay Holmes and Elle While.

Shakespeare’s Globe, in repertory through Aug. 26.

Copyright 2023 New York Times News Service. All rights reserved.