I am happy to report from London that Will Shakespeare lives. I was the first kid on my block to attend a performance at the good-as-old, 20th-century version of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, about a week after its official opening last summer. Shakespeare’s magnificent "Wooden O" now occupies the Thames at Bankside just a few blocks from the archaeological remains of the original.
Artistic Director Mark Rylance, best known to American audiences as the leading man in the film Angels and Insects, chose and starred in the opening production, Two Gentlemen of Verona. As one of Shakespeare’s least produced and most lowly regarded works, it seems an odd choice. But history suggests that this play may well have been one of the first produced at the Old Globe in the 1590s. This nod to historicity is only one of many by the New Globe’s creators. Indeed, the historical experience outweighs even the theatrical one, and that is quite an accomplishment.
Architecturally, the theater replicates every detail of the original within the restrictions of modern safety codes, and the first-time visitor cannot help but be impressed with the builders’ evocation of 16th-century technology. I had toured the Globe on a bleak day last winter and observed a craftsperson at work on one of several hundred spindles being hand carved while they were turned on a foot-powered lathe.
The tallest vertical wooden supports are hewn from single beams which do in fact hold the building upright. The half-beam construction is identical to the original, and the "O" is crowned with, yes, a thatched roof. Fire codes required wider aisles, stairs, and seating than in the original, but the Globe still holds, although doesn’t necessarily "seat," 1,500 spectators.
Now about those seats: Comfort is not the primary reason to attend a performance at the Globe. At intermission, I heard visitors lucky enough to have snared seated viewing complain about the lack of backs on the seats and the absence of cushioning, though seat cushions may be rented for a pound each (about $1.60).
The several hundred of us who stood for the three-hour production in the area surrounding three sides of the stage had entered through a gate marked "Groundlings." We paid five pounds each (about $7.50) for a privilege once afforded Elizabethans for a penny. I suppose I’ve stood for three hours in other circumstances, shifting from one foot to another or finding a discreet place to lean.
And there were distractions aplenty to keep one’s mind off the discomfort factor. But we late-20th-century first-worlders are used to our comforts, and three hours is a long time to stand in one spot. Happily, some of the 16th-century conditions have been upgraded with little damage to historical accuracy. Toilet facilities are now available, although in a separate building. Openings in the theatre which ventilated the mephitic fumes arising from Jacobean sanitary facilities now have the contrastingly benign task of admitting gentle breezes.
An atmosphere of casual intimacy, usually missing from the ivory tower of live Shakespeare, is created by the proximity of the audience to the players. And the fact that the plays are presented in a roofless, daylit environment allows actors to see the audience as clearly as the audience sees them.
Interaction beyond the visual also is encouraged; groundlings hiss and boo the villain (in the case of Two Gents, Rylance’s own Proteus), but no rotten fruit was thrown during the performance I attended.
The experience was a memorable one which should by all means be embarked upon—once—by theatre-loving visitors to London. But with such a wealth of theatrical experiences to be enjoyed in comfort elsewhere in London, the Globe will probably be reserved by most audiences as a once-in-a-lifetime theater/history experience.
Photography courtesy of Pawel Libera/Globe Theatre
This article was first published in May 1997. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.