Shakespeare for real: fast, rowdy and cockney

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The Independent Online
The reopening tomorrow of Shakespeare's Globe theatre, after a 355- year break, will mean hearing the Bard spoken at breakneck pace in original "proto-cockney" Elizabethan accents.

The theatre is also planning to revive some Elizabethan plays that have languished unperformed for the past four centuries.

The original Globe, built in 1599 and partially owned by William Shakespeare, was burnt down in 1613. Its successor, Globe II, was demolished after being forcibly closed by order of Parliament at the beginning of the English Civil War in 1642. Last week Globe III was completed after 65 months of construction work.

The new Globe - an exact replica of Globe I - will alter the public's perception of Shakespeare when it opens its doors for its first presentation, Henry V, this afternoon.

Globe III is scrapping the traditionally sedate atmosphere of 20th-century Shakespearean theatre. Instead, it will revert to the Elizabethan and early Stuart audience norms of heckling and informality. As in Shakespeare's day, snacks will be served throughout the performance - and some plays will be performed without intervals.

The actors will be wearing exact reproductions of 16th-century Elizabethan garments. Seventeen months of intense research have so far gone into designing the costumes and props and they are the most accurate ever used in a Shakespeare performance since Globe II was forcibly closed three centuries ago.

The dyes - indigo, weld, madder and onion skin extract treated with urine and saffron - have been specially made. Even the actors' underwear, which the audience is unlikely to see, is made of Elizabethan-style linen. Real silver and gold thread has been used to make some of the more spectacular Elizabethan silk garments. Many of the stockings have been made of hand- knitted silk. Hand-made felt has been used for hoods, real oak for corset boning, woven hemp for shirts, and real needle lace for collars and ruffs. The armour has been made of steel by two specially commissioned craftsmen. And original Elizabethan techniques have been used to hand- produce shoes.

The design of Globe III itself is also based on massive amounts of research, Eight years ago archaeological excavations of parts of Globes I and II yielded vital information which has enabled the designers to calculate the original ground plan. Excavations of another Shakespearean theatre - the Rose, demolished in 1604 - provided crucial information on the central audience standing area and even about the type of thatch that should be used.

An examination of Staples Inn, a 16th-century former tavern still standing in central London, yielded precious information about carpentry techniques, while a 1599 London monastic building, Canonbury Tower, helped plasterers get their designs right. And to learn how Elizabethan craftsmen coped with polygonal architecture, carpenters visited an early octagonal market hall at Wymondham, in Norfolk.

And yet the Globe III perfectionists still think they can make their product even more accurate.

The theatre's chief academic adviser, Professor Andrew Gurr, says that in Shakespeare's day people probably talked faster than they do now and that the actors would have taken not much more than two hours to perform a play which today would take over three.

"To be true to the original, the actors should really speak and move a lot faster - about a third faster in fact," Professor Gurr said.

"The story line would unfold more rapidly. The beauty of character, verse and situations would have to take second place to the elegance of the plot," he said.

The new theatre also hopes to re- introduce true period accents. Some future productions could be performed in "proto-cockney", Professor Gurr says.

"By analysing late 16th-century spelling idiosyncrasies we hope to learn a lot about how the words would actually have been pronounced. They certainly would not have been articulated in a standard modern middle-class accent - more a strong London regional one, as most of Shakespeare's actors were Londoners," he said.

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