on June 1, 2008
Sam Wanamaker was ticked, and I can’t blame him. The Globe Theatre had long since burned down, but he expected to find more of a tribute to this landmark than a plaque mounted on the side of a brewery. I wonder when he realized that this plaque had formed his life’s work. In 1997, after more than three decades of sharing his vision, cajoling, pleading, and fundraising, a faithful reconstruction of the principal site for Shakespeare’s performances finally opened. Unfortunately, Wanamaker wasn’t there to celebrate, having passed away three years earlier. But this place and its programming have quickly made Shakespeare’s Globe a center for celebrating and extending Shakespeare’s contribution to the English language and the wider world.The building itself is a tremendous accomplishment, constructed using Elizabethan techniques—right down to the thatched roof, which required special permission (since no such construction techniques had been permitted since the Great Fire). Given the frequency with which fires destroyed theatres (the original Globe only lasted 15 years before going up in smoke during a performance of Henry VII), it’s probably a good thing that sprinklers and other modern technology were also incorporated.Like the original, the reconstructed Globe stands on the South Bank, just east of the Tate Britain and a short walk after crossing the Millennium Bridge. Its well-known ‘O’ shape and beam and plaster construction is easily recognizable from across the river. A more modern building is attached on the east side, housing the Exhibition, gift shop and small cafeteria. Tours of the theatre take place every half-hour or more, and include admission to the exhibition. This is an extensive—and recently expanded—introduction to Shakespeare, his time, the South Bank, the construction of the new Globe, and theatre in Elizabethan London. It’s laid out around the perimeter of the center, in a spiral route that’s a little reminiscent of New York’s Guggenheim. Most visitors spend time here while waiting for their tour, but if any of these topics intrigue you, 30 minutes won’t be enough. Your ticket is timed for a particular tour, but you can return to the Exhibition throughout the day. If we hadn’t come at the end of the afternoon, we would have done that, but we were fighting sore feet and empty stomachs as well as closing time.Unless there’s a performance going on, you’ll be taken inside the theatre. Since we were here in mid-March—not usually a hospitable time for outdoor activity in London—I didn’t expect to see anything going on. It turned out that a group of high school students were preparing for a performance that they’d designed, and they were testing the acoustics on the stage, getting comfortable, and then helping staff finish set-up.Your tour guide will probably stress the differences between theatre here, and theater as we’ve come to know it. There’s no microphones, much less scenery, and an intimacy with the audience that’s often the privilege of only a few in today’s elongated theaters. The Globe is relatively large—it holds 1,700, about a third of which are ‘groundlings’ that stand in the O’s center in front of the stage—but the circular design means that everyone is nearly equidistant.After two visits, I’m still intrigued by the Globe, although neither January nor March allows you to see a performance here (the season runs from May to October, rain or shine). The new construction doesn’t meet one’s expectation for what an ‘old’ place should look like: its cleanliness and freshness seems out of place. Of course, even the original Globe was new once, and it couldn’t have deteriorated too far during its short lifetime. This project, and the productions staged within it, is not without critics: some view its insistence on doing Shakespeare now as Shakespeare did then as archaic and anachronistic. They have somewhat of a point: our understanding of theater may have moved on, but I find it hard to fault those who loved and love the Bard this much for trying to do it his way. Someday, I’ll return for one of the famous £5 groundling seats, preferably for one of the histories or tragedies. After taking part (i.e., standing through) that, I’ll think about revising my opinion. Until then, I’m a fan.
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