Yet at least one member of the current pantheon of Shakespearian directors has looked at the new Globe and pronounced it "restrictive". Shakespeare felt the same, of course:
"... but pardon, gentles all
The flat un-raised spirit that hath dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object: Can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did afright the air at Agincourt".
But Shakespeare was a writer (and actor), not an ambitious 20th-century theatre director having to survive in the age of the image, not the age of the word, with one eye on the next hit musical. There can't have been many who left Shakespeare's theatre after the first performance of Henry V thinking that the Chorus had been right about the unworthiness of the scaffold. Surely Shakespeare's company - his "ciphers to this great acompt" - used his verse and prose to manifest the great themes; and didn't the audience see everything that Shakespeare wanted them to see?
The big question for the new Globe is twofold. Does such an audience still exist? Should such an audience exist, now that the ink on Shakespeare's parchment has been dry for 400 years? A second question might appear to some merely rhetorical. How is the modern director of Shakespeare to make his or her bold interpretative mark on a play in this "restrictive" theatre?
There's still a lot in it for the actors, of course, as anyone knows who has sat in the remotest gallery seat at the Barbican and watched the 400-year gap turned to a mere blink by the gulp-making immediacy of Desmond Barritt's Malvolio saying "I'll be revenged on the whole pack of you". And how extraordinary it is that in a "public" play like Measure for Measure, with a final scene that certainly required the 40-odd extras it was given, nevertheless scene after great scene is in the form of intimate duologue, requiring absolutely nothing but the realisation of two complete human characters in dramatic conflict (two boards and some wonderfully complex passion).
But what of a believable "world" for such characters to inhabit - all our quaint devices which make Shakespeare "relevant" for us today? All of that is very interesting, of course, and seductive, but it's not too extreme to compare the real rabbits in Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree's Forest of Arden with the high-tech excesses of contemporary Shakespearian production. I used to laugh when Edward Harwicke recounted the his father's Sir Cedric's description of Beerbohm Tree's Macbeth which went something like this: The curtain rose on the three witches flying round the stage on wires. Eventually a crack of thunder and a fork of lightning struck a tree growing out of a high rock at the rear. It collapsed right across the stage towards the footlights, at which point the other Tree (Sir Herbert) appeared high up on the rock in the limelight and said, "So foul and fair a day I have not seen"... The understatement must have brought what was left of the house down.
I think Sir Cedric's point was that the production had peaked a tad early. It brings to mind last year's vast floating black bridge emerging out of the dry ice, the deafening decibels of the thunder and lightning with which the three witches vainly competed through their throat mikes.
"Please," I asked a director last year after a technical rehearsal in another of our modern theatres, "may I beg that not a note of the scene- change music is sounded until I've spoken the author's final line. Otherwise it sounds like that moment in a film when the oboe comes in to tell us what to feel, and I think our author is asking us to achieve something more ambiguous than that. The scene has so many layers of possibility - give it a musical-emotional wash and we're left with one, which is bound to be wrong."
"You're quite right," he replied, "that was only me waving and saying 'Mother, can you see my production'."
Isn't so much of this a pageant to keep us in false gaze? One loves it, of course - one might even miss it. There was a wonderful moment in Stephen Pimlott's production of Measure for Measure. We were in 1995 assuredly, at least most of the time, often inside Victorian Holloway or Wormwood Scrubs. In the prison office two fluorescent light fittings glared down onto clipboards and files. The prison governor was in braces and blue serge trousers. Suddenly, surreally, the Duke looked out front into the dark auditorium and said, "Look, the unfolding star calls up the shepherd."
Ian Judge's production of Twelfth Night gracefully, defiantly, placed a well-proportioned proscenium on the wide wastes created by the Barbican architect and his two theatrical consultants, though my 8-year-old was so captivated by the most realistic sky ever seen on a stage, combined with the most artificial and effective sea of wafting silk, that he missed the entire import of Viola's scene with the sea captain.
The English theatre's genius has never been bound up in tradition or we would have a Globe intact and alive in aspic like the Noh and Kabuki of Japan, with honoured Living National Treasures playing the leading parts. And those who complain that no one can speak Shakespeare "like they used to" should really attend to what actors in the RSC achieve in the absence of any tradition or accepted school of playing. They should remember what the elder Quin said of David Garrick: "If this young man is right, I and the rest of the players have been all wrong." Or even Noel Coward's reply to the crony who moaned, "The West End isn't what it was." "It isn't! But then," he added, ever the realist, "it never was."
Are we ready to see jocund day stand tiptoe on the misty mountain tops?
Will we get the modern/universal parallels without being directorially nudged by the designer's image and the soundtrack?
Can we take our Shakespeare neat?
The new Globe is obviously neither a return to the past nor a rejection of the Shakespearian present, with all its ingenious, wayward spiralling invention. Perhaps it is, after all, the greatest new challenge, the most wonderful calculated leap into the Shakespearian daylight... that is dark and light enough?
n Shakespeare's Globe Theatre workshop season from today [Wed 9 Aug] to 10 Sept. This week's sessions: 2.30pm and 6.30pm Wed-Fri and 4pm Sun. Booking: 0171-344 4444Reuse content