21 Globe Walk
Southwark SE1 9DT
Thursday June 11th 2015
Linda chose the Bus route 63 on a bad day and was thus late for this early morning (by Museum standards) meeting Bankside, as the locals have it. Fortunately it was a lovely summer’s day with our spirits rising almost as high as the tides lapping the riverside walk; you can easily get splashed in places.
We have been to several different performances at the seasonal theatre (April 23 to mid October) but this was the first time either of us had joined a tour. The entrance pricencludes an exhibition as well as a tour of the auditorium. Today there was something of a rehearsal taking place which meant no talking and no photos inside, which was a shame as the day was sunny and the ceiling, depicting of course the Heavens from whence Jupiter might descend (a la Cymbeline), would have looked good in a close up (having only sat on the highest level when attending performances we were impressed at how wondrously colourful it is). I had a fancy to step onstage too…
We actually started the exhibition but then joined our 10.00 am tour returning to the displays at the end but I would l say you need to give yourself plenty of time for the downstairs information boards as they give an excellent introduction to the theatre, the playwright and London at the time – perhaps less so for an overall historical context.
If you have ever ‘done’ i.e. studied (and thanks to Mr Gove they are now compulsory) or acted in a Shakespeare play you will be familiar with the sort of information that appears in most introductions. London proper – commerce, government, justice and nobility were all on the north side of the river while Southwark and Bankside were full of entertainments ranging from brothels to inns to animal fights of all kinds. Plays were performed indoors in hostelries and sometimes the courtyards of the wealthy or inns of court but there were also four purpose built theatres – the Rose, the Swan, the Globe and the Curtain though the last was just outside in a less riverside setting. Each theatre had its own actors’ company and its own playwright and probably William S. acted as well. (Let’s face it the film 'Shakespeare in Love' does this bit better than most talks, or our blog.)
The Globe we see today is the third incarnation – the original, for which Will Shakespeare as part of the Lord Chamberlayne’s Men would have written, stood from 1599-1613, when it famously burnt down after a rogue spark from a cannon fired during a performance of Henry VIII ignited the thatch. The replacement Globe was closed/pulled down under Oliver Cromwell’s more puritanical regime in 1642. The site was not here, Thames side ( the Thames was wider in those days) but along near a brewery in Bermondsey. In 1949 the young actor Sam Wanamaker arrived in the UK and decided there needed to be a replica theatre. Between the fund-raising and the health & safety concerns – thatch rooves were outlawed In London following the Great Fire of 1666 – it was 1997 when the current building opened for performances, too late for Sam himself who had died in 1993. The downstairs exhibition shows quite clearly the composition of the thatch, which you will be relieved to hear, is well salted with sprinklers. It is a testament to the success of the theatre and the continued fund-raising that the additional theatre – the Sam Wanamaker, and a horseshoe shaped Jacobean replica took comparatively fewer years to come to fruition – these performances fill in the winter months when the Globe is closed. While there were clear drawings of the Jacobean models in Worcester College, Oxford, the guides describe this Globe as a ‘best guess’ based mainly on the remains of the nearby Rose Theatre. The Sam Wanamaker holds only 340 seats as compared to the 1000+ able to watch drama in the Globe. Many of those will pay just £5 as ‘groundlings’. In Shakespeare’s day the cost to stand and heckle, eat and probably all the other bodily functions was 1d, 2d for seat and 3d for a seat +cushion. Nobility sat in boxes by the stage as much to be seen as spectate themselves. One penny would have been equivalent to half a worker’s weekly wage…
The two central pillars, painted to look like marble are in fact ‘green’, or young oak now splitting slightly it has to be said. The ‘roof ’over the stage (the rest of the auditorium is more or less exposed to the elements) is painted to look like the celestial heavens complete with trapdoor. The square stage represents earth and the further trapdoor below leading to ‘hell’ and other dark places. (Witches please enter from below…)
The exhibition, though containing few actual artefacts, covers the origins of Elizabethan theatre in London, what Bankside would have been like and a very sweet model of the ‘Frost Fair’ – the Thames frozen enough to support all manner of winter fun and games. There are a few shards of what would have been beer bottles (beer being more drinkable than dodgy water) and no shortage of hazelnut shells indicating that the audience liked to nibble while it watched – more exotic nuts had been found and of course the theatre was not far from the docks.
Also in abundance are the wealth of quotes – interestingly not just the ‘old chestnuts’ from the famous speeches but the everyday expressions we continue to use still on a daily basis. The exhibition is dotted with different ‘talking heads’. It really comes alive in the ‘attiring house’ – ‘wardrobe’ in modern parlance – section with film of dressing Mark Rylance as Cleopatra in an ‘original practice’ (what we would call ‘all male’ production as women were not permitted to perform in the theatre until the re-instatement of the monarchy and Charles II). Wardrobe essentials are nicely recreated with herbs etc for dyes. Costumes were given far more prominence than sets or even lighting (most productions relying on daylight after all).
Similarly space is devoted to explaining and demonstrating the composition of plaster (the wall kind) and thatch, and to contemporary special effects. Shakespeare’s audience were fairly inured to blood and gore, after all the alternative entertainments involved quite a lot of animal cruelty, and so several plays (Titus Andronicus for example) necessitated copious amounts of fake blood and limb loss, which the then stage management was well able to convey realistically.
A rather good interactive programme allows you to identify and then hear played the contemporary instruments as music is very integral to many of Shakespeare’s plays .
In summary the exhibition is well worth a visit – however if you have time and inclination going to a production would seem the best way to see the theatre itself rather than the somewhat tokenistic tour that we experienced in a shuffling crowd. The whole complex is much larger than would appear from the river and it can get quite confusing once inside.