The town crier swings a heavy bell as he weaves through the gathering patrons. He heralds a final “commencement of the performance”. A fanfare of blaring trumpets rings out signifying our arrival at King Lear’s palace. From a turret overlooking the stage a sole minstrel waif intones the misery of the impending treachery while clashing cymbals and hand-rolled thunder machines evoke the king’s screaming rage and looming madness. The journey to when Shakespeare’s works were relished by the peasants and labourers, the yeomen and the gentry is established by the authentic costumes, unadorned artifacts and burning cinnamon fusing with the oily green scent of a lime-washed auditorium.
If you’re a fan of the Bard and are visiting London then an outing to Shakespeare’s Globe is an essential part of your stay.
“Everyone who comes to the Globe is a convert,” says marketing director Andrew Macnair. “It is so different to every other playhouse – it exceeds visitor expectations. The fact that you can stand and watch the performance as a ‘groundling’ in the space directly adjacent to the stage creates a great atmosphere. Many people are happy to do this and really enjoy it. ‘Groundling’ tickets only cost £5. We have seats too of course!”
While I am thankful for my wooden bench seat, hired cushion and backrest the ‘groundlings’ don’t seem to mind standing and most of them are transfixed throughout the entire play, except for the occasional fidgety teenager.
“How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child!”
(King Lear Act I Scene IV).
The Globe’s Elizabethan architecture stands out from its modern surrounds at Bankside by the Thames River and is a remarkably accurate replica of the late 16th Century playhouse linked with William Shakespeare and his troupe of actors, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. Several of those players, including Shakespeare and Richard Burbage, invested their own money to create the original Globe Theatre, a small scaled amphitheatre styled on the famous Coliseum.
The story of the Globe Theatre is as rich and colourful as the comedies and tragedies it first presented. At times it was used as a brothel and gambling house and so popular were the performances there that it led to a law in 1591 closing all theatres on Thursdays so that the bull and bear baiting industries would survive. There were enforced closures due to the outbreak of plague and in 1598 the Globe was dismantled beam by beam and relocated because of a dispute with the landowner. In 1613 it went up in flames when a prop canon misfired during a performance of Henry VIII. The theatre was rebuilt the following year and continued until it was closed down by the Puritans in 1642.
The current building is the best possible recreation of the original Globe right down to the water-reed thatched roofing and untreated green oak framework which were standard building materials at the time. Academic input from historians helped determine the dimensions of the 20-sided polygon that housed 3000 patrons, seated and standing.
“There are a few accounts and rough sketches of what the theatre looked like from people who came during the time,” Macnair says. “What we have reconstructed is our best guess based on these and other sources of information.”
Today the Globe is not just a playhouse but an international resource centre archiving and exhibiting all aspects of 16th and early 17th Century theatre, Shakespeare’s writing and his normal London life.
“The Globe Education programmes have been running since the early 1980s and remain a key element of our work,” says Macnair. “The programme includes workshops, lectures and play readings. There are also displays of costumes and musical instruments which we have used in productions at the Globe.”
The current theatre, Shakespeare’s Globe, came about through the tireless energy and determination of American actor Sam Wannamaker.
“Nothing will come of nothing.” (King Lear Act I Scene I).
Wannamaker settled in London and was disappointed to find the only memorial at the theatre’s original site was a plaque on a brewery wall. In 1970 he founded the Globe Playhouse Trust to fund his quest. Construction began in 1991 and was finally completed in 1997.
“We have established ourselves as a key performing arts venue in London and are seen as such,” Macnair adds with pride. “Also, we are commercially successful and this is without any government subsidies.”
The mid week matinee of King Lear I attended was packed to the rafters. During interval everyone looks up to the sky in wonder; yes if it rains some get wet. The open arena design ensures the ‘yard’ is illuminated with natural light so everyone can see everyone else.
“In a conventional theatre, the actor cannot see the audience – the opposite is true at the Globe. This helps create a quite different environment to more conventional theatre spaces. You just have to look at the faces to see this happening. It is very special,” Macnair says.
Whether you are seeing a comedy or a tragedy like King Lear, a matinee, evening or special midnight performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream you can be assured of superb acting in fantastic surrounds just as the Bard intended. When it comes to summing up my experience of Shakespeare’s Globe, as Cordelia said to Lear, “My love’s more richer than my tongue.”