The Merchant of Venice (Habima) @ Shakespeare's Globe. Part 1: Outer Frame
Reviewing an event such as this evening’s performance at the Globe of The Merchant of Venice by Habima (Israel’s national theatre) poses serious ethical questions. If the review focuses on the entire experience – the preliminaries, the tensions, the various kinds of performance taking place both outside and within the auditorium – then the production itself, Habima’s work, risks being sidelined. If, however, the review ignores the “outer frame” (as Susan Bennett might term it) and concentrates on the “main event”, what was intended to be seen, then it is compromised in two ways. Firstly, the experience of every audience member was shaped and formed by the extraordinary framing of the production, that was inseparable both in terms of the mindset with which we entered the Globe, and in terms of how interwoven the subsequent acts were with the main performance. Secondly, in ignoring the elements that were not legitimised or planned for, I would be colluding in the silencing of a protest that, whatever you might think about it, had important things to say and deserves to be reported.
This review, then, will be of unusual length. It is subjective, as all reviews are, but it is unashamedly so. It is also political, if only insofar as I support the right to protest and the right to express views peacefully. I did not participate in any of the protests this evening, either in the pro-Israel camp or among the Free Palestine lobby; it's a situation which I choose not to actively campaign in. Nor, however, did I participate (as did many of my fellow audience members, with that self-righteous, zealous passive aggression that only late trains, queue jumpers and people who talk at the “wrong time” draw out of the British) in the active silencing and removal of the protesters. The heavy-handedness of the policing of tonight’s performance was at least as disruptive as the mostly silent protests themselves, and I have never been in a theatrical situation where I have felt more intimidated, watched and surrounded by hate. And for the most part, that wasn’t coming from the protesters. This part will deal with the framing, and I’ll focus on the performance itself in a follow-up tomorrow.
I spent the day on the South Bank, where a heavy police and private security presence began to make itself felt from 4pm. At 4.30pm I found myself locked inside the Globe building during an apparent incident, which meant no-one was allowed in or out for some fifteen minutes. Shortly after, the Globe was cleared of all members of the public for a full security sweep (my thanks to an amusing and welcoming duty manager, who was a relief to deal with after the frankly extremely rude security team). Outside, crowd control barriers were being set up and the South Bank rearranged, heavily policed, to contain the anticipated protests.
Security barriers set up on Bankside
Heavy disruption had been expected around Habima’s performances since they were announced. The company, I understand, has performed in occupied areas of Gaza, and is seen by many as a tool of the Israeli regime. I defer to those more knowledgeable than me to debate the rights and wrongs of the company’s actions; fundamentally, though, I had no desire to see the production boycotted. Does the Globe’s invitation legitimise an institution that assists in an illegal occupation? Very possibly; but its presence on the South Bank both gave a voice to Hebrew-language theatre and, more importantly, legitimised a peaceful protest. As the two lobbies gathered in cordoned-off areas on the South Bank, I collected a wide range of literature arguing for and against the right of these artists to perform to a London audience. In the context of a Festival such as Globe to Globe, there appears to me to be a solid argument for the value of debate; a debate which the production’s presence allowed to happen. Or, at least, should have.
Protesters in the Palestinian camp
The protests on both sides were deeply felt and heated, perhaps unsurprisingly for a particularly hot May afternoon, but largely peaceful. Tempers frayed, however, during the bag checks, which began an hour and a half ahead of performance time. Information had been sent out to all ticketholders in advance to let us know that we would have to check all bags bigger than a handbag, and that none of our own food, drinks or anything that could be used to disrupt a performance would be allowed in. Full security gates were in place including metal detectors and pat-downs, and several of my fellow theatregoers argued strongly with the beleaguered security folk about their right to take in their own sandwiches. The fact that, inside, the Globe was charging £2 for a can of Coke and £1.50 for a bottle of water stung a little.
Protests in the pro-Israel camp
Relieved of bags, the Globe audience then had to cope being cooped up in rather too small a space for an hour until the doors opened. We were entertained during this time by the impressive human beatbox duo Sweet Combination, who sang and played at a volume significant enough to drown out any distant protest noise – although one group did manage to get a loudspeaker onto the Bankside pier to cause a little disruption. The heavy security presence remained somewhat intimidating, particularly in such close quarters, so it was a relief for doors to open and the crowd to spread out inside the theatre.
The last key element of framing came once the house was full and doors closed. Dominic Dromgoole emerged to welcome the audience. The very fact, of course, of the Artistic Director of the Globe coming out to address the crowd in person spoke to the unusual nature of this event, and for the most part he dealt with it appropriately and in good humour, hoping that we approved of the new front of house arrangements and welcoming us to the performance. However, I found myself troubled by some of the ways in which he framed the expectations for the evening. The Globe is used to dealing with disturbances, he said – pigeons, fainting, planes – and he asked the audience not to take it into its own hands to deal with any disturbances during this performance, as Security would do so. The security presence inside the theatre was exceptional, surrounding the stage itself, spread through the pit, and standing in almost every gangway in the galleries. To reduce the disruption of protesters pre-emptively to the accidental/occasional disruption of a pigeon was a rhetorical strategy I found unnecessarily demeaning.
The new front of house arrangements (metal detectors and bag checks)
Dromgoole rightly pointed out that the actors onstage were neither politicians nor policy makers, to the approval of most of the crowd, and pointed out that anyone who disrupted the performance – or whose phone went off, an announcement delivered with emphatic glee – would be immediately evicted; but he asked the audience not to engage in any vigilantism. It's a safety caution that was important to make, and I was extremely pleased he asked the audience to ignore rather than confront protests; implicitly leaving interpretation to the individual spectator. These were artists telling a story, Dromgoole informed us, aiming to understand and to criticise, and to help make the world a better place. Now, however, while I can’t take issue with these sentiments, I found the appeal to a “better place” difficult to stomach coming from a man standing on a stage with the backing of a good fifty huge security attendants ready to evict anyone who disagreed or dared to disrupt. Whether or not the theatre is the appropriate place for this kind of protest became irrelevant for a moment; the heavy-handedness of the policing, and the gentle mockery which served to bind together an audience in derision of the Palestinian protesters, came across to me as a gesture of control and display of power that quashed any hope I had of a “better world”.
I’ll go on to the performance itself in a separate post, but I’ll deal with the protests here. About five minutes into the performance, banners and flags were unfurled in the galleries, and security acted quickly to remove the women displaying them. This was followed by a silent protest – a group stood to attention in the first gallery for the entire first half, masking tape over their mouths, presumably protesting at the silencing of the Palestinian voice. I was surprised to see this group left alone – they were non-disruptive, but so were the earlier flags; and actually, one woman in particular appeared to be obstructing the view of the person behind her, which on any other day would be cause for a steward’s intervention. Towards the end of the first half, following Bassanio’s success in the casket challenge, a younger group began unfurling banners in the pit and protested noisily when evicted. By this point, however, the rest of the audience seemed to be losing patience, and civilians began taking a turn at pointing out protesters to security and ordering them to shut up. This policing of the pit I found one of the most upsetting aspects of the evening; the audience turning in on itself over a question of etiquette, but with displays of aggression from the non-protesters that I found disheartening; security were quick to respond, but audience members felt the need to actively participate in shutting down the (silent) voices of the Palestinian protesters and, apparently, take satisfaction in being seen to do so.
The second half was much less disrupted, but more vocally when it was. During the trial scene, a gentleman standing next to me with an extraordinarily clear voice called out “Hath not a Palestinian eyes?”, and was followed by another. They left with very little trouble as soon as Security identified them and touched their arms, although I had the impression there was a little resistance. Obviously, the consciously disruptive nature of this form of protest made it more of an issue (within the conventions of British theatre etiquette) than the silent protests of the first half. However, the aggression of the audience towards this more deliberately disruptive incident was, again, perhaps even more unsettling. An angry cry of “Piss off!” was met by laughter – laughter – from around the theatre, as audience members joined in the jeering of the protesters as they were evicted. More encouragingly, one man shouted out to the flustered actors “We’re with you, keep going”. The support of the audience for the actors was encouraging; the bile displayed towards the protesters less so. As I was standing next to the men who shouted out, I felt the eyes of the audience on me, found myself at the business end of a dozen pointed fingers, and experienced something of the hostility directed at those who believe in something strongly enough that they feel the need to say it out loud.
When the performance ended, and we finally got through an initially badly organised bag reclaim procedure, the South Bank was still full of police. One group (silent when I saw them) was surrounded by police in a miniature kettle; while another woman screamed out about apartheid to the departing theatregoers.
I don’t like theatre to be disrupted. I dislike whispering, phones going off, antisocial reactions; it goes against the conventions I’ve been brought up in as a theatregoer - though to expect these in the Globe at any time is to fight a losing battle. But I’m an advocate of free speech and peaceful protest; and apart from the shouts during the trial scene, the protests outside and within the Globe space were largely silent and visual until removals began. I have never felt quite so intimidated, tense and uncomfortable at the behaviour of people around me as I did tonight at the Globe, and it was the aggressive interventions of the non-protesters rather than the protests themselves that prompted most of these feelings. The presence of such a system for controlling the reception for the production was such that, whether or not a protest had actually taken place, the presence of that which was being silenced was assumed. I am pleased for the sake of Habima that the disruption was minimal; I am glad that I had a chance to see this production. I just wish that the openness, freedom and generosity that have characterised so much of this particular set of cultural exchanges could have been more evident tonight on both sides.