A beacon of hope
Michelle Terry on the Globe during Covid
For reasons that seem almost too obvious to mention (a global pandemic), this is a unique moment when the security of both Shakespeare’s Globe, and the world, feel under threat.
There is no doubt that the recent award of £2.9 million from the Culture Recovery Fund will stave off closure for the theatre, but it is a lifeline to get it through an unknowable future, rather than a license to reopen. It is, however, an opportunity for hope. And for Michelle Terry, the Artistic Director of Shakespeare’s Globe, this cuts to the heart of what theatre has to do at a time like this. “We have to be a beacon of hope,” she says.
For Terry, however, even hope has changed shape. “It has to be redefined now, because it is based on time and the future, and people keep taking the future away from us and then we have to reimagine it again.” This has changed the theatre’s relationship with optimism. “So what does hope look like, and how do you stay really present?” she asks. While the Globe’s normal activities have been thrown into disarray, the answer, for Terry, is rooted in what they always do and have always done. “People are anxious, people are frightened, people are not sleeping, people are sad. And the more you’re honest about that, the more you go, ‘And that’s why we need stories.'”
‘People are anxious, people are frightened, people are not sleeping, people are sad. And that’s why we need stories.’
– Michelle Terry
Working out how to tell stories, and which stories to tell at a time of both personal and international uncertainty, is a tall order. The Globe, naturally, can turn back to Shakespeare. “He didn’t write comedies when the plagues happened,” says Terry. The outbreak of bubonic plague in 1606 saw Shakespeare produce some of his darkest plays, from Macbeth and King Lear to Antony and Cleopatra. This exploration of the dark side to life at a period of horror makes perfect sense. “He understood the need for catharsis,” says Terry. “He understood the need to go to the darkest places, and somehow, collectively, we emerge from them.”
It was this spirit of confrontation and openness that caused Terry to put on a festival dedicated to Shakespeare and Fear. While the subject is about making sense of the present, the festival is also about addressing the future. Shakespeare’s Globe has been staging festivals through the lockdown and 2020, such as Shakespeare and Race, but, for the first time, these have been without live audiences. For Terry, they represent an opportunity to “plug back into what we do”. “The parameters are: we’re in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse; we have four cameras, we have candles. How are we going to share this ghost story?” Thinking about storytelling, even for a brief moment, allowed Terry and the team at the Globe to get back to what they do best. “Time just stops. And that’s what I go back to again and again. I know that if we can at least try and get some funding we can at least keep getting better at making that magic, making those kinds of stories.”
Telling these stories is, at the moment, a process. What the online reading of Macbeth on 5 November revealed will take some time to know, but it’s not just about this particular show. “The idea of all of us being together, figuring out the equation, feels like a moment of magic right now.” The ramifications of this are potentially vast, according to Terry. “We don’t know what the answer is, but we’re figuring out the formula together, which may mean that if this formula works, then we’ve got a whole canon that we could be sharing in this way.” And if all of Shakespeare is up for grabs, then there suddenly seems to be opportunities that, before, seemed only like dreams. “You know, now is the winter of our discontent,” says Terry, “we’re begging for the stage reading of Richard III to happen.”
These prospects, of course, are not enough to replace the Globe’s activities that preceded the lockdown and Terry is also using this moment as an opportunity to reconceive how Shakespeare’s Globe operates. “We’ve created a digital studio, we’ve built relationships with people we’ve never worked with before. We’re working closely with our freelancers to make theatre work – they make up 50% of our workforce on a good day.” But this is the normal business of a theatre. More fundamental things have come out of this too: “When I think about our artistic endeavour, the fact that we’ve now got an anti-racist declaration that will underpin all the systems and structures from here on in – that’s an extraordinary statement of intent,” says Terry.
It is encouraging to fashion something with purpose and form amid the chaos the world finds itself in – an act that is also being replicated outside the theatre offices of the Globe, as the three resident writers are busy working on plays inspired by Ovid’s Metamorphoses. “It couldn’t be more relevant,” says Terry. “Born out of chaos. Out come the myths, out come the gods, out come some of the most brutal things that you can do to another human being. Out comes love, out comes unity – but born out of chaos.” Not only is this confronting the state we’re in now but, it is, as Terry says, “the same source material that Shakespeare used”.
Chaos, according to the myths, is what comes before the world is organised by creation. As Mary Shelley puts it, “invention… does not consist in creating out of void but out of chaos”. Collaborations with artists and writers devising new plays, and finding what Terry calls “new ways to share the space”, such as James Bay’s recent concert on the Globe stage, are a brave stand against the current situation.
‘I know that by April next year we will have created even more extraordinary things.’
– Michelle Terry
This combination of structural reinvention and artistic activity makes it seem that when Terry says her hope is that, on 23 April, the Globe will be “having a massive birthday party and celebrating Shakespeare”, you feel it might actually happen. “I know that by April next year we will have created even more extraordinary things, some of which will be recognisable and some of which will be totally unrecognisable,” says Terry. “But adaptation is absolutely at the heart of who we are and what we do. And when I look back on what we’ve done, that gives me great hope for what we’ll do.”