Monday, August 17, 2009
I spent last Tuesday in a very giddy mood. I didn’t think anything could be more exciting than taking part in Anthony Gormley's One & Other project but then I was finally standing in Shakespeare’s Globe (mark 3) looking up at the deep blue sky through the roof waiting for their latest production of As You Like It and realised that in fact, whilst it was fun to be part of Anthony Gormley’s art project, looking at that empty stage awaiting actors was as close as I’ll ever come to sitting on the touchline of the baseball diamond in Field of Dreams, or being a distant Liverpool fan visiting Anfield, a Beatles nut at the Cavern Club, an Elvis aficionado at Gracelands. I was teary at the Royal Shakespeare Company because I was submerged in theatrical history. The Globe is like actually stepping into history (albeit with a concrete flooring). It’s a dreamland.
I decided to dedicate my final day to the Globe, knowing that I'd want to take my time. For a change. If you do ever decide to visit, I’d certainly recommend you take the morning tour before the show. Over about three quarters of an hour the chronology of the theatre is explained, that the timbers were originally part of The Theatre theatre (yes, indeed) until problems with a lease agreement led them to be shipped across the Thames and turned into the first Globe in 1599. Which then burnt to the ground during the third performance of Henry VIII (misfiring cannon) in 1613. Rebuilt the following year it continued to be a going concern until the 1640s when the Puritans took a dislike to theatre I general and shut it down, that building falling to demolition in 1644. There’s plenty more to hear, that’s just the bare bones. Just enough time for photographs.
The present structure is a product of a twenty year campaign by Sam Wanamaker, who sadly died before it was completed and opened in 1997. During the tour, there is plenty of time to become acclimatised to the shape of the interior, and if like me you’re planning to become a groundling a chance to see the stage from other perspectives. The space is smaller than I was expecting, more intimate, though logically it has to be for the words of the actors to project and bounce of the roof and walls and back into the space. The other surprise was how sound from the edges could be isolated within their relate enclosures – the tours begin every fifteen minutes and at one point at least four different groups were at different stages of presentation but the voice of the guide was perfectly lucid. It's a beautiful building with its painting ceilings and fixtures, as colourful in its own way as Westminster Cathedral, the images just as symbol suggesting the stage teeters between heaven and hell.
A tour ticket also allows admittance to the education centre and exhibition, which adds extra detail to the information relayed on the tour using artefacts related to the original playhouse. One good choice is the recreation of other contemporary theatres in miniature, including Blackfriars, a space I’m not as familiar with as I’d like (perhaps someone will rebuild that too someday!) which underscores how plays were very much written to take advantages of the available spaces and how they have to be adapted to fill a proscenium arch, a television studio, a film soundstage. The exhibition also demonstrates that as well as being a historical recreation, the Globe is a living theatre with guides to the rehearsal process, musicians and costume making with examples from past productions and a rather sparkly recreation of Elizabeth I’s dress from the Armada Portrait which was worn by Jane Lapotaire at the Gala opening. What a night that must have been.
Having already been inside as part of the tour and enjoyed the first woosh through the doors into the space, I was surprised to find that I was still equally thrilled as I ran in, along with the other groundlings, just before the show, grabbing a space on the edge of the stage. Perhaps it was turning around and seeing a nearly full theatre, the stalls and floor as they should be, crowded to the rafters, a sea of grins. The multitude seemed to be a mix of tourists and locals, a range of accent and languages, splashing together. A Spanish family installed themselves behind me, the father giving his kids a running commentary throughout the first half and cracking jokes, presumably on the assumption that he was bettering anything the playwright was offering. But unlike most theatres, this is to be expected; no one stood to attention in Shakespeare’s day and that the atmosphere which is being engendered here. To work, the Globe has to be noisy.
And it was. How we laughed. As You Like It is (surprisingly) a play I’m not that familiar with. Jaques speech “All The World’s A Stage” was the first Shakespeare I studied at school, but somehow with the exception of the cob-webby Argo audio production (which I heard on vinyl in the early nineties) and the BBC Shakespeare production with Helen Mirren, this was my first proper visit to the forest of Arden. That was to the good, because instead of simply trying judge whether this was a good version of the play, I was more involved in trying to follow the plot which is exactly how to experience a play in the Globe, allowing the actors, so close and often speaking from the stage and stalls and back of the yard to talk directly to you, to become involved in their story because you’re hearing much of this language for the first time. During the tour, the guide said that during their last production of Hamlet, the prince would ask someone in the yard, directly "To be or not to be?" and sometimes they would answer.
So brilliant was the ensuing production that my feet, throbbing from walking about for two days, seemed to stop hurting, or perhaps it's that I just stopped caring. About the only fly in the ointment (phrase which I thought was Shakespeare but turns out to be Biblical) was the process of standing. After finding my speck, I took off my shoes and stood on my jump, but by the end I was in bare feet. Also, because I have the bowels of an Labrador puppy, I had to nip out some time during the first half, when you have to go, you have to go. And sadly I went during “All The World’s A Stage…” it seems, which didn’t stop me spending some of the ensuing time wondering if I’d missed it have long since forgotten I’d gone to the toilet. Always half a perfect world. As with most things in fact, attending alone can be difficult to navigate. Luckily I was next to some people who didn’t mind keeping an eye on my stuff whilst I nipped outside to buy that ice cream. Is this the Globe as theatrical Woodstuck, a temporary community watching out for one another.
The proximity of the players to the audience means that they’re speaking directly to us and reacting to sounds from the audience and the environment. Typically, the clown, on this occasion Dominic Rowan’s Touchstone, was best at this, reacting to odd murmurs and physically chiding the audience when they didn’t laugh at his jokes, a natural comedian. But at no time did this seem forced; we didn’t feel like we were laughing because we were meant to (which often happens) but because this was genuinely funny. In the Globe’s souvenir brochures, actors line up to talk about how they relish acting within the space because they have this connection with the audience, a connection which is lost in a typical theatre were the rest of the auditorium is hidden in darkness. Often the characters would plead with us for understanding, emotionally charged which must be electric during the major tragic soliloquies. That suspension of disbelief is continued in our acceptance that all this is occurring in a forest, even though the only evidence we have of that is the words of the actors and columns wrapped in brown material to suggest tree trunks.
The best moments are the careless love between the gender disguised Rosalind and Orlando, in which she’s testing his resolve by making him believe that he’s pretending to woe a man when in fact he’s wooing the very woman he’s in love with. As played by Sophie Duval and Jack Laskey, these has elements of screwball comedy as Duval threw Laskey’s oaths back in his face, the actor’s gregarious approaches suggesting that he come from the same mould as Ed Tudorpole, Callum Blue and David Tennant. Though the theatre was noisy in the first half, during these scenes the Globe fell silent and hung one every word; even my Spanish commentator stopped intoning. That’s the magic of the place. By making an expectation of noise, makes these moments even more remarkable, that our suspension of disbelief is so total that it could be just us and Laura Rogers’s adorable Cecilia witnessing and reacting to the unfolding scene. This is one of those occasions when I don’t simply have the memory of what I saw, but also of how I felt. There aren’t many theatre productions that I can say that about.