Next June, Shakespeare returns to the Globe after almost 400 years. The new theatre offers a chance to see the plays the way the Bard intended. And then buy the T-shirt. Robert Butler reports
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The Independent Culture
WALK SOUTH over Southwark Bridge and look right. There are the bright, banal offices of Midland Bank and the fortress-like gloom of Bank- side power station. Sitting in front, near the Thames, is London's first thatched roof since the Great Fire of 1666. The tower crane, which looms over the oak beams and plaster walls, appears to have picked up a cottage from this year's Best Kept Village and dumped it in south-east London.

Next summer the Globe Theatre opens after more than 25 years of indifference, disbelief and mockery. It's a surprise to many that the Globe is actually going to put on plays. Let alone on this sort of scale. The first season runs from mid-June to mid-September, with a resident company of 32 giving two performances a day, Wednesday through Saturday, with one performance on Sunday. Over 15 weeks that adds up to a robust 180 performances. "What we are doing," says chief executive Michael Holden, "is creating an international- level company from square one."

There will be no scenery. Only the costume rails need changing, which means they can perform two different Shakespeare plays a day. The first one will be at 2.30pm, the second at 6.30pm. Both plays, therefore, will be performed in daylight - the auditorium is only partly covered - with the audience as visible as the actors. It's a bigger venue than it looks. There are seats for 1,000 people, and standing room - round the stage - for a further 500. This makes this sweet little thatched theatre the sixth-largest in London. With the Royal Shakes-peare Company vacating the Barb-ican during the summer months to go on national tours, the Globe will become London's leading venue for Shakespeare. It could be a big hit. What theatregoer - from here or abroad - isn't going to want to go there once? What actor isn't going to want to appear on this stage?

It's hard to reconcile these facts with the image. The Globe has been dismissed, for instance, by the historian Raphael Samuel, in his new book Theatres of Memory, as "resurrectionary folly". It has come to be seen as one of those long-runners that might never actually surface, like Richard Attenborough's film of Gandhi and Michael Holroyd's biography of Bernard Shaw (both of which did) or David Lean's film of Nostromo (which didn't). If the Globe did open, then it would be a testament not to the genius of an Elizabethan playwright but to the boisterous persistence of an American actor. It would find its place on the tourist map somewhere between Madame Tussaud's, the London Dungeon and the Hard Rock Cafe. A place, that is, to avoid.

The fastidious will find their prejudices reinforced by the Globe Exhibition shop. Here you can buy First Folio T-shirts, Elizabethan greengage preserve, Shakespeare jigsaw puzzles, Shakespeare posters, Shakespeare notebooks, Shakespeare mugs, Shakespeare silver coins and Shakespeare fridge magnets. You can buy a Shakespeare pillow case which bears a quotation from Hamlet: "To die, to sleep - To sleep, perchance to dream." The pillow-case designer has taken a small liberty with the text here. After the word "dream", he or she has deleted the all-important "ay, there's the rub" and replaced it with "zzzzzzzz".

You can also buy books, including The Shakespearean Stage, Playgoing in Shakespeare's London, The Lost Stagecraft and The Quest for Shakespeare's Globe. The two associations that have dogged the public image of the theatre sit side by side on the shelves: the Globe as rarefied scholarship and the Globe as Disneyland kitsch.

THE IDEA for the Globe, or the "dream" or "vision", as it is referred to round the site, was the late Sam Wanamaker's. Reverence is a constant danger here. First there is Bardolatry, then there's the Wanamyth. When the theatre opens next year, it will be on 14 June, Wanamaker's birthday. A leading American actor and director, Wanamaker came over to England in 1949 and went to look for the site of the original Globe. This was the theatre Shakespeare had moved to in 1599 and for which he wrote Henry V, Julius Caesar, Hamlet and Macbeth (among others). Wanamaker walked round Bankside and - so the story goes - all he found was a neglected plaque on a brewery wall.

Wanamaker had seen a replica of Shakespeare's Globe at the Chicago World Fair and worked in another at the Great Lakes Festival in Cleveland, Ohio. He knew something we didn't. In 1970 he set up an appeal to rebuild Shakespeare's Globe on Bankside. Southwark's Labour Coun-cil originally opposed the scheme. Their objection, which was quite original, was that it was "elitist". Shakespeare, said one councillor, was "tosh". The Council relented, however, and in 1987 Wanamaker got a one-acre site on a 120- year lease. It's several streets away from the site of the original Globe, but in a better location, next to the river. The polygonal design consists of 20 sections or bays. In 1992 the first two bays went up. Wanamaker died in December 1993. Today, 15 of the 20 bays are in place.

But it's not just the Globe. There is a 330-seat indoor theatre, too, based on the designs of Inigo Jones, discovered at Worcester College, Oxford. Rebuilding the Globe and building an Inigo Jones theatre is a wonderfully mad thing to do, but many of the other bits and pieces that make up the grandiloquently named International Shakespeare Globe Centre sound suspiciously like an Arndale for the arts: shopping for Shakespeare.

There is, naturally, the exhibition hall. This year 100,000 visitors will see the present, temporary exhibition. Michael Holden hopes that figure will rise to a quarter of a million over the next two years. The exhibition will pay for any shortfall in funds. There will, too, be all those amenities that places other than a theatre could run just as well: a shop, a restaurant, a pub, a cafe, a cinema, a lecture hall and an education research centre with an audio-visual archive and library. The plan is to complete this complex by 1999, in time for the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's move to the Globe.

For people who like anniversaries, and people who run arts complexes tend to, the next 15 years provide a bumper crop. In the late 1590s and 1600s Shakespeare was at the peak of his powers. "We're 400 years from so many things," says Holden, "and will be through till 2011."

Considering that the whole complex will cost around pounds 30 million, the Globe itself sounds like a bargain at only pounds 8 million. That sum has been raised from private sources, large and small: pounds 10, for instance, positions a bundle of roofing thatch; pounds 50 secures a mortice and tenon joint; pounds 300 lays a York flagstone with your name on it (yours could lie next to the one bought by Anthony Hopkins); pounds 50,000 buys you one of the 20 bays (and one is still available). To begin with the money came in slowly and a third of it came from America. Many potential British donors preferred to wait. The further the project gets the more the money comes in and the more it comes in from Britain. The Globe Trust currently has an application with the Arts Council for pounds 12.4 million of lottery money.

The Globe can't apply to the Heritage Fund because the reconstructed theatre is a replica and therefore, unlike the Churchill papers or Coca- Cola, it's not the real thing. There isn't a single artefact from the period. But "replica" hardly does justice to the care that has gone into rebuilding the Globe - felling green oaks from the Forest of Dean, Wind- sor Great Park and the New Forest, hand-making bricks based on Tudor models, gathering Norfolk reeds for the thatch. It has not only given work to traditional craftsmen, it has also, in the case of timber craftsmanship, revived traditions that had died out in the 19th century. This in itself constitutes a form of heritage. More importantly still, by rebuilding the stage that Shakespeare wrote for, something truly remarkable is being restored.

Wanamaker was a method actor. He brought an abrasive authenticity to the roles he played, excelling in Brecht, Clifford Odets and, appropriately enough, N Richard Nash's The Rainmaker. He didn't excel in Shakespeare. When he played Iago opposite Paul Robeson's Othello at Stratford in 1959, the Chicago-born Wanamaker was criticised for turning Iago into a slick gangster. Still, as a member of the Globe staff points out, to build a replica of the original theatre is the ultimate act of a method actor. Beat that, De Niro.

"SQUEEZE IN. Squeeze in."

A Globe Education actor, Mark Knight, stands on a table in the Globe Education Centre in Bear Gardens as 30 schoolgirls from Bradford crowd round.

"On a sell-out day there'd be 3,000 people. A thousand of them in the pit or yard." Mark explains, "Was it indoors? Did it have a roof? Or tip- up gears? Lights? A curtain?"

"No," says one girl.

"Good. They didn't have those. Dekker, a writer of the period, called them stinkards. [Laughter.] They would wear their linen underclothes for six months. [Groans.] Three thousand people all sweating together in the sun. How many armpits is that?"

"Three thousand," says the girl.

"No, they didn't have 3,000 one-armed Elizabethans!"

"Six thousand," says another girl.

"Yes! So it's a very smelly, noisy group of people."

A primary aim of Globe Edu-cation is to get across how different playgoing was in Shakespeare's time. The department has a big noisy audience of its own: 25,000 students will pass through the Globe Education Centre this year. That's before the theatre opens.

The Bradford schoolgirls do a bit from A Midsummer Night's Dream. The rude mechanicals are giving a performance of Pyramus and Thisbe. The schoolgirls aren't given scripts, they are given cues. "You learn with your mouth, not your head," says Mark. They have very little time and are told to get on with it. Then they perform the scenes with no lights, no props, no scripts, no scenery and very little rehearsal. One girl gets carried away and extemporises: "Can it be true?" she says, seeing the mangled cloak of her lover lying on the ground. "Am I dreaming? Then I must do what any person would do in my situation." (She stabs herself.) The approach is matter of fact, and close to the way Elizabethans would actually have rehearsed.

When the acting class is over, the schoolgirls walk the couple of streets across to the Globe site itself.

"Squeeze in. Squeeze in," says another actor, Mary McNulty. "Yes, it's very good for picking pockets."

The schoolgirls gaze round at the scaffolding, white buckets, concrete mixer, stacks of bricks, bundles of Norfolk reeds, and elegantly carved balustrades. The brick wall below the stage juts out into the centre of the pit. The girls are impressed. "This is what all the fuss is about," says Mary.

The newest addition is the wall. Many of the people involved in the project - including Sam Wanamaker's daughter, the actress Zoe - helped lay the bricks the previous weekend. When you visit the Globe and see the craftsmen at work, it looks as if they will always be there, thatching and plastering, like the blacksmiths employed by the National Trust to work in forges. It's a disappointment to see that one picturesque task after another is being completed.

Mary points out to the girls that the whole theatre is held together by wood and that the wood is put in place while it is still green. It shrinks and seasons in position, strengthening the building. The plaster is made of ground-up limestone, cow or horse hair and water. You can see one modern feature on the thatch. At regular intervals there are little metal nozzles: these are water sprinklers in case of fire. The first Globe was built in 1599 and burnt down in 1613, when a spark from a stage cannon in a production of Henry VIII set the theatre alight. It was quickly rebuilt and continued as a playhouse until finally being closed by the Puritans in 1642. The original theatre cost less than pounds 1,000.

"Any questions?" asks Mary.

Someone asks the pounds 30 million one.

"When will it be complete?"

"Next year we hope. It's all private money. No public money yet. So keep buying your lottery tickets. That's what we're relying on."

Sam Wanamaker gave Patrick Spottiswoode, head of education, clear instructions about what he wanted from the education department. He wanted him to think on a local level, he said, and on a national level, and on an international level. That's a relief, thought Spottiswoode, he wouldn't have "to start thinking about Shakespeare on the Moon".

This August and September the Globe will host a series of workshops. The idea is to see how the theatre works. Do the actors, for instance, address the other characters on stage or the audience? "How do you organise your movement," says Michael Holden, "given that you've got two dirty great columns on the stage carrying the heavens, they're two foot in diameter, they're psychologically a barrier between the actor and the audience." A third of the workshops are from overseas: one is Chilean, one Australian, four from Germany, seven from America, two from Japan. This is the International Shakespeare Globe Centre, after all, and theatre companies from overseas are queueing up to perform here.

The Globe will bring back skills in presentation that many actors rarely use. Appearing in panto will be as useful as appearing in Strindberg; Michael Barrymore may be a better tutor than Stanislavski. Audience skills, too, will need developing: football may have moved towards all-seater stadiums, but theatre is heading the other way. At the workshops this summer the audience will be encouraged to eat, drink and crowd round the stage. The theory is simple: the more you put into a show the more you get out of it. "The whole secret of Elizabethan theatre," says Holden, "and the thing we're trying to rediscover is that participatory nature of the audience. We're used to sitting in the dark and saying 'entertain me'."

The artistic directorate will announce the new artistic director this month. The directorate is made up of many of Britain's leading actors and directors. If only a fraction of the directorate appeared in the first season it would read like the cast list for Murder on the Orient Express. There is a short list of seven for the job of artistic director. Final interviews are in progress. The interviewees are, apparently, Shakespearian directors of international standing. Lord Birkett, chairman of the interviewing panel, has asked each candidate to provide notes outlining their vision.

Names mentioned include Bill Bryden, Peter Hall, Terry Hands, and Ian Talbot, who runs the Open Air Theatre at Regent's Park. The directors named by Wanamaker for his first season were Bryden, David Jones, Declan Donnellan and Deb-orah Warner. Kenneth Branagh was also approached.

The artistic directorship is not a job for someone who enjoys over-turning texts with spectacular designs. Stephen Daldry need not apply. The Globe won't rely on stage designers, lighting designers and sound designers. It certainly doesn't need a director whose international standing is so high that his or her overseas commitments mean that rehearsals are taken by an assistant. It needs an artistic director who is simultaneously ambitious and modest.

Decisions that post-war directors have taken as a matter of course - about concept, staging, period - will be marginalised. Setting Shakespeare in a modern bank or in revolutionary France will look redundant when there is no scenery. The Globe will be a place where you go to hear the play. Hamlet asks Polonius: "Will the King hear this piece of work?" He didn't ask: "Will the King regard the set, the costumes, the lighting and glossy programme?" For there is far more to Sam Wanamaker's project than honouring Shakespeare. The Globe gives the plays back to the playwright. It will be an actors' theatre. What audiences will discover is the shock of the old. !