London Stories and Tips

The New Globe Theatre

Macbeth, Globe Theatre, London Photo, London, England

I’m a co-owner of the New Globe Theatre in London. Yes, indeed. One brick is mine! In the 1990s I planned and prepared a trip to London with my German A-level students of English, but a short time before our departure I had to be operated on all of a sudden. A colleague stepped in. In order to comfort me my dear students, who knew how I had looked forward to the trip, bought a brick for me at the theatre and gave me a nicely ornamented document about the transaction as a present. Whenever I go to the Globe Theatre now, I wonder where ‘my’ brick is.

The first time I visited the Globe was when it was still a building site, one could go on guided tours then and learn about the history of the place and the way the theatre was being built. It was a rather noisy experience what with the workmen hammering away but very instructive.

The official name is New Globe Theatre, in fact it’s the third theatre on the South bank of the Thames in Southwark. The first ever theatre in London was built in 1576, soon further playhouses opened. The Globe Theatre (1599) was the most famous, it was built by the company in which Shakespeare had a stake. It’s said that not only plays were performed there but that the theatre was also a gambling house and brothel. Theatres were not only for the intellectual elite then, the commoners would pay 1 penny to stand in the ‘pit’ as groundlings, i.e., in front of the stage, to watch the plays, move around and perhaps even interact with the actors. The gentry would sit in the galleries and noble people as well as the Royal Family could sit on the side of the stage itself - and interact as well if they were bored or mischievous.

As there was no electricity in those days, the plays were performed in the afternoon. The Globe theatre was extremely popular and attracted many spectators. This does not mean that a play was on for many years like it happens today with successful plays and musicals. I once read that Hamlet was performed 16 times and then every Londoner who wanted to watch the play had done so.

In 1613 a too realistic performance of Henry VIII destroyed the theatre. A cannon used for special effects such as the announcement of great entrances was loaded with real gunpowder and wadding. Unfortunately, the thatched roof caught fire and soon the whole building burnt to the ground. The theatre was rebuilt the following year, however, it was closed in 1642 when the Puritans issued an ordinance forbidding all stage plays in theatres. The Globe was demolished in 1644 and wasn’t rebuilt when theatres opened again in 1660.

Fast forward about three hundred years. In 1949 the American actor, director and producer Sam Wanamaker visited the site and when he found only a plaque on the wall of a brewery mentioning the Globe Theatre, he decided to raise money and rebuilt a replica. He founded a trust in 1970 and after 23 years of fundraising (selling bricks, for example!) the construction started. Sadly, he died three years before the New Globe was completed in 1997.

What we see now is as faithful to the first theatres of the Tudor and Elizabethan period as possible, traditional materials and working methods were used if they still could be got and used. The shape is a large ‘O’, the outside walls are rather austere in black and white, they’re well visible from a boat tour on the Thames. A thatched roof covers the galleries and the stage but not the central area where the groundlings stand. This thatched roof is the first of its kind since the great fire in London in 1666, it’s made of Norfolk reeds and has been coated with a special fire-protective liquid, a concession to the strict fire regulations of our time. Another concession is that there are fewer seats nowadays due to the fact that people have become taller and fatter.

The pillars standing on the stage support a roof called the ‘Heavens’ with pictures of the sum, the moon and the zodiac. The price you pay for a seat varies according to the view of the stage you have, if the pillars cover some part of the stage for the spectators and they can’t see all the actors all the time, the price is lower.

I’ve seen The Merchant of Venice, King Lear and Macbeth over the years. Not only does one have the impression to be in a theatre of the Tudor times, the plays are also performed in a way that would have please the audiences then (in the opinion of Shakespeare experts). When the spectators go to their seats before the beginning of the play, they see the open stage and one or more actors frolicking around, teasing the groundlings near the stage and behaving in a silly, often obscene way. In Macbeth it is the Porter’s task to entertain in this way, he does this also during the break. If one isn’t informed about ‘comic relief’ being an integral part of Shakespeare’s plays, this can be quite disturbing or even shocking. And I don’t know if it happens anywhere else in the world where Macbeth is performed that when the play has ended, all the actors come onto the stage and perform a Scottish dance accompanied by bagpipe music. I’m sure Shakespeare would have like this.

Besides the theatre proper the building also houses an extensive exhibition on Elizabethan Theatre in the ‘Underglobe’, a gift shop, a snack bar and a restaurant. Educational tours of the theatre can be booked. Tickets can be ordered online, you can see how much of the stage you can see well from your seat with a click. The tickets are sent to you by post.

I don’t go to London so often anymore but if I go, a Shakespeare play at the Globe is one item of my to do list. It doesn’t matter which play is on, I know that it will be an unforgettable experience. I know it’s not the real thing, the occasional plane or helicopter flying over the theatre during a performance remind me of this, but I don’t mind. It can be argued that replicas are kitsch per se, but my imagination is not so vivid that I can see Shakespeare’s theatre before my inner eye while watching a play of his in a modern theatre building. Shakespeare’s plays can be performed well anywhere, of course, but a performance in the Globe Theatre adds a certain something which I (and millions of other people) cherish.

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