Michelle Terry's plan for Shakespeare's Globe is democratic – but is it doable?

Michelle Terry’s first season as artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe looks highly promising. It sees Mark Rylance returning to play Iago, a good balance between Shakespeare and new work, and an exploration of ideas concerning censorship and refugees. You feel that Terry, unlike her predecessor, is driven by a passion for the writer whose name the theatre enshrines. But her opening programme raises a number of unresolved questions.

The most striking concerns the opening productions of Hamlet and As You Like It, which will be performed by a 12-strong ensemble with no directors named. Terry says that she wants to “dismantle the triangle of hierarchy that is part of our culture”, initiate “a really collaborative process” and absolve a solo director of the burden of responsibility.

In fact, one gathers there will be a couple of co-directors working on the shows but that everything is up for grabs including the casting.

It sounds admirably democratic but I wonder how it will work in practice. Terry has said that she’d “sure as shit like to play Hamlet” and it would be a brave soul who denied her the opportunity in her own theatre. Irked as I often am by overweening directors, any Shakespeare play also throws up myriad questions which need to be addressed. In the case of Hamlet, they might include: What period are we in? At what point does Hamlet’s feigned madness become real? How implicated is Gertrude in Claudius’s crime? Is Fortinbras a redemptive figure or a vulgar opportunist? And those are just some of the easy ones. I’m all for collaboration but any Shakespeare play is such a maze of ambiguities that someone has to take the key decisions; and that person is usually the director.

Ellie Piercy and Michelle Terry in As You Like It at the Globe, directed by Blanche McIntyre in 2015. Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian

While Terry kicks off with what looks like actor-driven Shakespeare, the following productions are in more familiar hands. It is good to see Blanche McIntyre, whose RSC Titus Andronicus is currently one of the most exciting productions on the London stage, returning to the Globe to direct The Winter’s Tale and the versatile Claire van Kampen staging Othello.

Of the two new plays, Emilia is written by Morgan Lloyd Malcolm and directed by Nicole Charles, while Eyam is directed by Adele Thomas. But, while women play a prominent role in the season, no mention is made of Terry’s prior pledge to 50/50 gender equality in casting. I’ve no doubt the commitment is still there but it would be good to see a little flesh on the bones. Does it mean we might see a female Leontes, or Palamon and Arcite in The Two Noble Kinsmen undergoing a gender switch?

Terry clearly believes in diversity and choice and even plans to allow audiences to select which of three touring productions of Merchant of Venice, Twelfth Night and The Taming of the Shrew they will see on any given night. I admire her principles but I suspect the opening productions will test the practical difficulty of achieving, in the time available, a truly democratic Shakespeare.

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