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London can, at last, look William Shakespeare in the eye.
- The Sunday Times
The whole point of a project such as this is to get Shakespeare off the page and onto the stage.
- Lucy Beevor, Publicity Director
Sam Wanamaker is the man behind the magnificent reconstructed Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, situated on 21, New Globe Walk, nestling the south side of the River Thames in London, UK. As a visiting American actor, so the story goes, he came to London in 1949 looking to gen up on the history of the historic old Tudor Globe playhouse that opened way back in 1599 with a performance of Shakespeare's As You Like It. He was appalled, however, to find no real lasting monument to the great bard and the venue that premiered his work, save for a tiny plaque in a brewery that prosaically noted that it happened to be built in the same location where the Globe had once existed 300-odd years previous. Not on, decided Wanamaker. In the 1950s and on returning to Britain (but this time to live) thespian Sam hatched plans to re-build the Globe on its original site.
The history of the old Globe is a bit sketchy, but that it must have been a right old hoot, we're pretty certain. It was built in 1599 along Bankside, a noisy entertainment district of some notoriety. During the 16th and 17th Centuries, the area firmly established itself as a kind of 'sin city' boasting several brothels as well as its famous playhouses1, which, as well as the Globe Theatre, included The Rose, The Swan and The Hope. In fact, the Rose Theatre, just down the road from the Globe, was a fierce rival of Shakespeare's, and he must have taken great delight in slyly mocking it publicly in Romeo and Juliet. The Rose apparently had bad drains and at the height of summer the place would stink. So, when cooing Juliet said to wooing Romeo, 'That which we call a rose by any other word would smell as sweet', the audience would instantly get the pun and enjoy a good laugh at the Rose's expense.
In the Globe itself, the posh punters would sit in one of three galleries around the stage and yard, but the 'groundlings' (yes, you) would actually stand in the yard having paid the princely sum of a penny entrance.
What made the spectacle so entertaining was the fact the actors and the audience always interacted, especially the groundlings who were probably half-cut2. The boisterous crowd would hurl oranges, nuts, apples and gingerbread at the performers, even joining in the mock fights with them! (Can you imagine doing that with today's luvvy actors? 'Oy! Come 'ere Kenneth!' 'Hey! What're you doing? Unhand me!! You'll smudge my make-up!'.)
The noise must have been tremendous (a full house at the old Globe meant 3,000 paying punters), and if we imagine that back then folk weren't the media-saturated googly-eyed modern horrors we are today, a new play at the Globe must have been a magic day out.
Unsurprisingly, though, all this unbridled fun was looked down upon by those po-faced bunch of miserablists, the Puritans. Not allowed to promote its plays with flyers and the like, the Globe was restricted to announcing its programme with a coded flag message, hoisted high above the top of the theatre for passers-by to see; a black flag indicated a tragedy, white was a comedy, and red showed that a history play was being performed.
In 1613, during a performance of Henry VIII, the cannon that announced the king's entrance let off a spark that set the theatre ablaze reducing it to cinders.
The original Don of the boards, William Shakespeare, was a co-owner of the Old Globe, along with four other actors: Will Kempe, Thomas Pope, Augustine Phillips, and John Hemminges.
In 1642, that joyous mob, the Puritans, who found theatre 'vulgar and intolerable', shut down all of London's theatres... including the Globe.
The Modern Globe
No one is exactly sure about the accuracy of the reconstruction, due to the dearth of original documentation, but the modern Globe certainly seems to have recaptured the bustling, visceral vibe of the original; this Researcher seems to think so:
One thing that really surprised me was the atmosphere. The plays we take seriously are actually comedies. Men play all the female roles and there's something really inherently funny about that. For example, a queen being played by a man - you KNEW they were men. People went round in costume in the yard giving us fruit so we could throw it at the actors. It's basically the precursor to pantomime. I really enjoyed it - but I would have enjoyed it more if the weather had been nice. I mean, who can concentrate on Shakespeare when it's bloody-well pissing down with rain?
Good point, good point. Let's hope for sunny weather, then, when we book our tickets.
Anyway, Sam Wanamaker initially aimed at building a faithful and authentic reconstruction of the Globe... and it looks fabulous, an Elizabethan-looking gem, with every detail incorporated. With its thatched roof and long wooden timbers, this superbly reconstructed open-air playhouse is stunning. But that's not all. Shakespeare's Globe today officially goes under the name of the International Shakespeare Globe Centre (ISGC). This complex dedicated to Shakespeare and to theatre, is built up around the Globe itself. The complex includes an excellent exhibition displaying all manner of Elizabethan drama-related paraphernalia, a Globe Café and a Globe Restaurant, a Gift Shop (surprisingly un-tacky, too). There are also workshops, lectures, walking tours and many other activities that fall under the broad banner of Globe Education.
In fact, in many respects, the education aspect of the modern Globe is almost as impressive as the Globe itself as there are loads of opportunities for schools to organise visits to take part in these activities. (For a price of course, but it doesn't seem too bad: a full-day visit, 'A Day On Bankside', for example, costs around £9 per person, a minimum of £225 per class. Teachers go free.)
In conclusion - magnificent! Surely the best place in the world to study Shakespeare and to watch his Elizabethan vision of drama come screaming into modern-day life.
Another Juicy Fact
- They have to repaint the Globe every year because it's so open to the elements.
The following brief description details a particularly nice walk. Behind Bush House, standing on the Strand, proceed left away from the Strand and walk up Fleet Street. Continue towards St Paul's Cathedral, crossing over Ludgate Circus, and turn right on to St Peter's Hill. There, perfectly framed, you will see ahead of you the new Millennium Bridge, the sliver of steel, poetically named 'The Blade of Light'. Walk across it, stopping halfway to turn around to gaze back on the triumphant St Paul's, and then continue, taking in the wonderful views up and down the Thames, left and right. The bridge takes you to the Tate Modern Gallery (top place this, deserves an entry in its own right) and just to the left, you'll see the Globe. It really is a lovely walk.