This last time I was in London, I finally got the chance to do something that’s been on my list for a while: I saw a play at the Globe Theatre.
As anyone who’s studied Shakespeare knows, this was his theater back in the day – well, sort of. The theaters in London at the time were all on the south bank of the Thames, a part of town generally considered disreputable; it was where all the seedy dive bars, gambling joints, and bear-baiting rings were. In short, it was where all the fun stuff that Puritans consider the Devil’s work found a home. Since the Puritans were also against the theater (all the actors in the 16th century were men, and the idea of men dressing up as the female characters was found to be shocking and appalling), actors and playwrights found their way to Bankside (as it’s now called) with the rest of the shady characters of Londontown. Of course, this didn’t stop many high-class folks from coming to see plays, and Elizabeth I was a notable patron of Shakespeare’s Globe, and Shakespeare even wrote Macbeth to suck up to James VI/I, who hailed from Scotland.
Part of the reason that Shakespeare was so successful as a playwright was that he was a good businessman. In the 16th century, playwrights were freelance workers. They’d write a play, sell it to the playhouse for a flat rate, and then never see another dime. At this point, it was the playhouse that owned the play, and they could do as they pleased with it. Many playwrights would attached themselves to a particular playhouse so as to get as close to a guaranteed sale for their work as possible. Shakespeare, however, thought a step ahead. Not only did he work as a playwright, receiving pay for the plays he wrote for the Globe, but he also bought into the Globe. In modern terms, he held shares with voting rights in the company. From that position, he was able to have a say in how the play was produced. More importantly, he was able to make money not only from the commission on writing the play, but also by sharing in the profits from ticket sales.
With so much of his livelihood wrapped up in one theater, it was necessary for Shakespeare not only to write excellent plays, but to make them something that could only be seen at the Globe. Now, I know we’ve all seen Leonardo di Caprio as Romeo, and that adaptation was obviously not filmed on the Globe’s stage. There are countless other Shakespearean adaptations that have been made over the years, but none really capture the whole and true essence of the play. That’s what the stage at the Globe does.
The Globe Theatre is a theater in the round, meaning that the audience is wrapped in a semi-circle around the stage, as opposed to being parallel with it, as it a modern theater. Even better, the audience can come right up to the stage. In the 16th century, the cheapest tickets were for standing in the yard between the stage and the bleachers. The people who bought those tickets – called groundlings – could go right up to the stage, lean on it, bang on it, shout at the actors, and, yes, fling things on stage. That’s why there are highbrow and lowbrow jokes mixed in together in Shakespeare’s plays: The first line of defence in protecting the actors from the wrath of the groundlings was in making jokes they could understand; but the first rule of gaining funding from the rich folks was to put on plays that let the nobility feel like they were a step up from the riffraff. This setup allows for a different style of acting than a modern audience is used to. The actors can feed off the audience and occasionally use them as props (a friend of mine had her head rubbed and her hair played with by a villain plotting his malevolence).
The original Globe Theatre was closed by the Puritan government in 1642 (there was at this point no royal patron to protect the arts from such fates) and pulled down shortly thereafter to make room for tenement housing in the ever-growing metropolis. However, Shakespeare fans are pretty diehard folks, and in 1997 a reconstruction based on the drawings of the original playhouse was opened on the banks of the Thames, approximately 750 yards from its original location.
The Globe today has its fingers in a great many pots. In addition to putting on Shakespeare’s plays, they also do productions of modern plays, some of which are written specifically for this kind of theater. They also have educational events, including tours of the theater and museum, and they even work with King’s College London on their Shakespearean Literature masters program.
I got the chance to see the play Nell Gwynn on its closing night at the Globe. Nell Gwynn tells the story of – who else – Nell Gwynn, one of the first actresses in London and mistress to King Charles II. She was a feisty character, and one that would have made ol’ Willie proud. Her standing both with the audiences she played for and with the king gave her a bit of protection against the remnants of the Puritan old guard, and she was highly important in the movement to allow women to act onstage. The production itself was great, and took full advantage of the type of stage they were on, sending actors to mix and mingle with the groundlings in the yard. In the opening scene, Nell was actually down in the crowd, and when she was called onstage by one of the actors to learn the art, she actually climbed up onstage from the yard. One of my favorite moments, though, was the intermission, when everyone claps for the actors as they exit – the groundlings closest to the stage took to banging on it with their fists in lieu of applauding. Just like in Shakespeare’s day.
Visiting the Globe:
If you’re in town, take a walk over there! It’s easy to find (there are signs everywhere). There are two ways to visit the playhouse:
Tour and Exhibition If you just want to learn a bit more about what theater was like in Elizabethan and early Stuart England, take advantage of the museum and tour of the playhouse. Tours run every 30 minutes between 9:30am and 5:00pm. Admission is £16 for adults, £12.50 for students. Plan your tour here.
Attending a Play If you’re an enthusiast (and even if you’re not), this is the way to go. Tickets range from £5 to £50, depending on where you want to be – the cheapest tickets are in the yard, standing room only, and the most expensive are in the bleachers under the awning. But, if you’re physically able, I recommend being a groundling for an evening – it’s a whole different kind of theater experience. Shakespearean and non-Shakespearean plays are put on regularly. Check the box office here.