Today, Shakespeare’s Globe announced their autumn/winter season at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. Four Shakespeare plays will be performed; all were written in the final stage of Shakespeare’s career. Two of these plays – The Tempest and The Winter’s Tale – are staged regularly, but the other two – Pericles and Cymbeline – are not as commonly performed. It is hoped that the season will yield some interesting insights into how these apparently demanding plays were staged. In Cymbeline, Jupiter descends on an eagle and throws a thunderbolt. That’ll be interesting. People clamour for Shakespeare, and that’s understandable. There are commercial imperatives at work and, in any case, it will be good to get an extended opportunity to see Shakespeare plays in the environment of the SWP.
But I do have a gripe. In its first two years, the SWP was home to a number of Renaissance plays. Most of them were tragedies, which was a bit of a shame, especially since The Knight of the Burning Pestle was such a success, but I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to see these plays, even if I didn’t always like the productions themselves. It’s a shame, then, that there are no not-Shakespearean Renaissance plays in the new season, but worse than that is the accompanying advertising rhetoric, which imagines the last two seasons as a kind of experiment. The implication here is that the plays performed at the SWP during this time, many of them wonderful in their own right, are awkward failures, or half-successes. The experimenting is over, it is implied, and now the finished work will be revealed: Shakespeare. I’m not really surprised by this, but it is disappointing, especially since the Globe have done great work in making these plays available. Indeed, later tonight, they’ll be using the SWP for a very worthy event: the Back by Popular Demand Read Not Dead. Sadly, the experiment rhetoric does Renaissance drama no favours. It risks making things like Read Not Dead seem a token.
Retrospectively, the solution to this might have been to have integrated Shakespeare into the programme from the beginning. That two years of non-Shakespeare have been followed by one year of all-Shakespeare has only served to strengthen the divide between the Shakespearean and the non-Shakespearean.