Year of Shakespeare: Plays as Music at Globe to GlobeOpera, Ballet & MusicalsYear of Shakespeare

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This post is part of Year of Shakespeare, a project documenting the World Shakespeare Festival, the greatest celebration of Shakespeare the world has ever seen.


Plays as Music at Globe to Globe

By Amy Kenny, University of Sussex

When asked how his company rehearsed for their Globe to Globe production of Twelfth Night, Atul Kumar, Artistic Director of Company Theatre stated that he first thought of the ‘play as music’ and had the entire text translated not only into Hindi, but also into rhyming couplets and songs to fit this motif.[1] The emphasis on music in this lively rendition of Twelfth Night was evident throughout the entire production, with musical numbers punctuating each scene and one actor even blaming Shakespeare for his lack of rhymes and singing voice. The carnivalesque atmosphere of this production was largely created by the chorus, or mandali, as Kumar referred to them (which roughly translates as a troupe in English), sitting outside of the discovery space and commenting on the acting and narrative as removed from, yet part of the theatrical world presented on stage.[2] This production was not alone in highlighting the role of music, as numerous Globe to Globe productions heavily featured music as a way of telling the story of the play and engaging directly with the audience. Undeniably, the role of music will be one of the lasting legacies of the festival itself.

In Love’s Labour’s Lost, music acted as a unifier for different audience members as it underlined key moments and many of the jokes, and it helped to punctuate the issue of distrust that permeates the play. Deafinitely Theatre performed the play in British Sign Language while musicians played instrumental pieces in the background throughout the entire production. Music, in this production, acted as a thread connecting each scene to the larger narrative, and aided the understanding particularly for non-BSL speaking audience members. It highlighted the story’s most dramatic moments and provided a unique underscore for the actors’ movements and gestures on stage, as it was often the case that music was the only signifier of tone and pace for the non-BSL speaker. Deafinitely Theatre was adept at communicating to the audience, through their core language of gesture, and the music of the production highlighted the characters’ interactions and united the audience in understanding.

The focus on music throughout the festival was felt in various ways depending on the company. Each shared a distinctive feature of their culture in how they chose to utilise music in their productions to signify meaning. It manifested in a kind of chorus in several productions, where the entire cast would remain on stage throughout the performance and coalesce at poignant moments by singing and dancing. It was present in the use of pop music, as not one but two companies played a rendition of Gloria Gaynor’s soulful ‘I Will Survive’ to highlight with a hint of irony the brutality of a particular play, while other companies turned to modern, familiar music as a way of crossing the language barrier that was present in the audience. Others used traditional, tribal or folk music to express their country’s heritage and cultural traditions. Ngakau Toa turned to the rhythms and movement of the haka in performing their Maori Troilus and Cressida, which showcased the perfect union of Maori traditions and the theme of warrior culture in the play.

And for the first time at the Globe, music appeared in the form of recorded music blasted from a sound system that was installed especially for the festival. As a rule, Globe productions feature live musicians playing (mostly) period music from the Musicians’ Gallery, but the festival producers (reluctantly) allowed companies to bring their own recorded music to tell their story. The boisterous pop music that was selected by some companies was fittingly paired with the capacity of loud speakers, turning the Globe into a temporary venue for a summer rock festival, which resulted in audience singing along to the popular songs, such as James Brown’s ‘It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World’ and Nancy Sinatra’s ‘Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down).’ These professional speakers only highlighted the excellent acoustics of the Globe space, as the resonant oak stage amplified these tracks exponentially.

Music has long been important at the Globe, as the shared lighting and demarcated Musicians’ Gallery mean that the musicians are both seen and heard throughout the performance (as and when required). Music is expected to do the work that lighting does in a proscenium arch theatre: set the mood, underscore the narrative, change the tempo and gloss over the interludes between scenes. The focus on music is hardly surprising as Shakespeare’s plays certainly celebrate and evoke the power of music, however, music stood out as a significant and important feature in the festival as it functioned not only in its multifaceted role at the Globe, but also created a shared, communicative language between actors and audience.

In these productions, music took on an extra set of duties, being required not only to set mood, pace and fluidity of the production, but also communicate the plot to the audience, many of whom did not speak or understand the language of the performance. Music became not just a mechanism for highlighting and emphasising, but was used as the tool for communication itself. The use of music allowed for a type of communication beyond the synopses provided on the screens in the theatre, or any edition of the play. It conveyed sentiment, intimacy and characterisation in a powerful, emotive and passionate way.

Tom Bird, Festival Producer, commented after the festival that ‘almost everyone felt the need to place music at the forefront of what they were doing, [so] music became very, very important, very, very quickly.’[3] In coming to the Globe, these international companies instantly understood that music is the primary means of changing mood or transitioning between scenes, and utilised the physical, visual and auditory language of music.

[1]Interview with Atul Kumar on 28 April 2012.

[2]I am grateful to Taarini Mookherjee for this translation.

[3]Interview with Tom Bird on 6 June.


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Author: Amy Kenny

Amy Kenny recently submitted a PhD on Shakespeare’s representation of the family and is an Associate Tutor at University of Sussex. She is currently a Lecturer at Shakespeare’s Globe, where she has dramaturged for 15 productions and conducted over 70 interviews with actors and directors about architecture, audiences and performance.