Neil Constable on The Globe and why The Merchant of Venice is more relevant today than ever

The Globe's executive director talks past, present and future

Credit: Sourav Niyogi
Originally built in 1599 beside the Thames in London, The Globe Theatre caught fire during a 1613 production of Henry VIII, when a misfired cannon set the thatched roof alight. It was rebuilt the following year, only to be destroyed again 30 years later, when the Puritans deemed all theatre immoral entertainment. The once-glorious spot stayed empty until American actor and director Sam Wanamaker made a pilgrimage to Shakespeare’s playhouse and found nothing but a plaque.

Wanamaker relocated to the UK, where, in 1969, he launched his own campaign to rebuild Shakespeare’s Globe. He faced funding shortages, apathy and outright ridicule for decades, but in 1991, construction on the new Shakespeare’s Globe began.

Wanamaker died in 1993, having seen only a rehearsal performance on a temporary stage. but he would have been pleased with the result. Theatregoers still sit on wooden benches only partly protected from the elements, and the ‘groundlings’ still stand open air and elbow-to-elbow in the pit.

We spoke to Neil Constable, executive director of today's Globe ahead of this month's Shanghai outing of Merchant of Venice.

What are your general impressions of Merchant of Venice? About this production?
'I’m happy to see this production revived from last year. Jonathan Pryce was only available for six weeks, so we really felt like this production had not yet been completed. We also felt that as a play, this has an opportunity for people to reflect and look at who they are, especially when there is such change around the world. When religious intolerance is being manifested and seen on a daily basis, it felt very appropriate. And Jonathan was keen to revive the production; he didn't feel finished with the part.

The Merchant of Venice-4

'Taking it on tour to China was recognising that Merchant of Venice was the first Shakespeare play performed there. People tell me that the story of a pound of flesh is something seen also in great Chinese literature, and also that a money play, then and now, could push people in certain ways and bring out such horrid characteristics. Even for our American tour, audiences did feel this wonderful connection to these words from 400 years ago. Shakespeare would not have dreamt that his plays would have such resonance today.

'Sometimes it is seen as a problem play, or as an anti-Semitic play, but even though it has anti-Semitic themes, it’s not an anti-Semitic play, especially [this version]. I don’t want to give away the end of the play, but there is something that doesn’t happen in most productions. But we have a project where we do 90-minute Shakespeares; we had 20,000 London schoolchildren attend, [speaking] the over 55 languages that are spoken in our schools. When you see a bunch of schoolgirls in hijabs [standing] in the groundlings, shouting “shame on you” when Shylock renounces his religion, that’s wonderful to see these plays the way Shakespeare would have wanted us to [see them], to reflect and comment on them.

'And it is seen as a comedy, which is bizarre. There is glorious comedy in the suitors to Portia and the scenes in Belmont. But then we do know about forced marriages; we do know about having to fall in line with what one’s parents expect. It does feel like a play that is still doable, like Taming of the Shrew; we find new light and new experiences that reflect what is happening in the world.'

Can you talk about the Globe stage and performance style?
'The Globe has a tradition of performing Shakespeare plays the way they might have been performed 400 years ago. [First artistic director of the modern Globe] Mark Rylance brought this tradition of original practice, of using all-male companies and of using the original tools available. But we don’t restrict ourselves to that, because it would be unfair to female actresses, and because we want to do contemporary interpretations as well.

'The words feel fresh [when they’re] performed in the space they were written for. And suddenly people are seeing the plays and understanding why they were written – and why they were considered great plays to a group of groundlings (standees). And that’s what we try to recreate when we are on tour. And we find that because our productions are about the words and the actors, and not about any heavy scenic devices on the Globe stage, audiences see a purity in the shows, not a director’s vision.'

Neil Constable
Credit: Simon Kane

Jonathan Pryce says the Globe attracts a broader audience because of the groundlings (standees), do you agree?
'Yes I agree; we say it’s the cheapest date night in London. And I’m always taking my colleagues that run venues in China to task, because we don’t receive government subsidies, but we still manage to offer 40 percent of our tickets at five pounds. So they should offer some tickets at 50RMB.'

What are the Globe’s future plans for China?
'We’ve always recognised over the years that Chinese audiences have a hunger for Shakespeare in English, and as part of the 2012 World Shakespeare Festival, we welcomed Richard III from the National Theatre of China. Also, we’re in this golden decade of cultural exchange, which means the free movement of talent, projects and productions. We brought A Midsummer Night’s Dream to Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, and I was keen…I mean, you talk about China’s second and third-tier cities that are the size of London, there must be an audience there. And I was really pleased that we’ve been able to add Nanjing to this tour.

'But there is a real appetite; when the audiences come to the plays, they know the plays, they have done their homework. They appreciate this sort of unadulterated, simple staging that lets the words flow. And in this year of celebrating the 400th death anniversary of both Shakespeare and Tang Xianzu (Peony Pavilion), it’s appropriate to bring this production, one of the earliest Shakespeare plays performed in China, from the UK. There’s nothing better for showing who and what you are as a country than through your creative energies and artistic endeavours.

'This is our third tour; China also welcomed Hamlet as part of our 197 shows around the world, and was one of the few places where we played two venues. And for the first time, we’re putting together a Globe education programme for China, working with schools and venues and the British Council, putting together workshops for the students. Here in the UK, there’s a huge discussion about the value of art as part of the education system; many feel we should concentrate on stem cell engineering and maths, but others recognise that to have fully rounded students, they need to engage with the arts. The Ministry of Education is recognising that in China, and with our Globe education centre, teachers can share the education techniques in teaching Shakespeare the same way we’ve been sharing maths teaching techniques. It gives people more confidence, because we always say that these plays are to be performed; they’re not to be read, they’re to be staged.'

I’ve heard that Chinese tourists come to the Globe, take the tour, take a picture, but don’t always stay for the show, would you agree?
'Because we have the exhibition and theatre tour in Mandarin and Cantonese, a lot of Chinese come on that and don’t stay for a production. But you can’t help but walk along Bankside or go over the Millennium Bridge and see how many delightful young couples are having their photos taken before they go home for the actual wedding. And when I was in a hotel in Shanghai, I walked past a hotel ballroom and was delighted to see a cut-out of London that also included the Globe. If you look at what the Chinese opera houses looked like 300 years ago – and sadly there are not so many around anymore – the two are similar, the timber frame, the roof, the columns, and the semi-circular shape. There we were, two separate nations developing theatre 400 years ago, with theatres that look quite similar. That’s why Tang Xianzu and Shakespeare can be interchangeable, with these big themes of the stories being told.'

Why is Shakespeare universal?
'He gives people the opportunity to reflect and understand who and what they are in the world. Those stories – and we’re so blessed to have 37 of them – are not a manifesto on how to live your life, but they [cover] all of society, all walks of life and all classes, so that everyone has an opportunity to find a character that represents them. He’s a passport to life.'

Regarding the rebuilding of the modern Globe, why did it take an American (Sam Wanamaker) to raise the money, and why did he face so much British resistance?
'I was with the RSC at the time, and everyone was convinced that it would be twee, that it would some Disneyfied Shakespeare experience, some kind of Madame Tussauds, with no credibility and guarantee of productions. That was before Mark Rylance became artistic director. When they saw the productions, audiences, critics, and naysayers realised what a valuable resource this would be. And it always takes an outsider to tell you what you need. Sadly, he never got to see it himself.'

What’s next?
'We want to bring our Globe on Screen films to China, now that we’ve seen the success of NT Live screenings. We have 25 films of plays shot at the Globe, and has over 60 films, including the Chinese Richard III in Mandarin. These have been downloaded in over 120 countries. We want to [establish] the Globe Education centre in China and see what is relevant for students, to do the screenings, and then to do a regular touring circuit that takes in more of the second-tier cities.'

The Merchant of Venice is at Shanghai Oriental Art Centre from Thursday 22-Sunday 25 September. See full event details and buy tickets below.

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