Curtain's up at the bawdy Globe

Robert Winder celebrates the return of Shakespeare's Wooden O
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Shakespeare's Globe reopens for business today, just 383 years after the original playhouse burnt down (when a cannon set fire to the thatch during a performance of Henry VIII). It ought to be an occasion for some straightforward celebrating - a few fireworks, and a fete or two - but these days our responses to large-scale cultural projects tend to be sour and a little suspicious. Fears have been expressed that the new Globe will be little more than a mock-Elizabethan theme park: Stratford- upon-Thames, or Carry on up the King. Indeed, it is hard not to tremble at the thought of all that yes-my-liegery, all those buxom wenches in period bodices clutching baskets full of capons and flagons of rhenish, all those ghastly codpiece jokes for the tourists.

Actually, we probably shouldn't complain if these fears turn out to be well-founded. Even in Shakespeare's day the Globe was part of a south- of-the-river leisure complex, a 16th-century Disneyland where people went brothelising before the bear-baiting. Any historical enterprise is bound to risk seeming like an exercise in the most cartoonish sort of nostalgia. But the signs are that the Globe will not necessarily turn out like that. The artistic director, Mark Rylance, is a formidable and not remotely old-fashioned actor whose declared belief that Shakespeare was not actually the author of "the Shakespeare plays" is, however dotty, a useful sign that he does not regard the man as a sacred cow.

And the fact that he has chosen to open the new space with a performance of The Two Gentlemen of Verona - one of the most ham-fisted and least popular plays in the Collected Works - suggests that he will not be content simply to turn out decorous productions of the old favourites. There are, to be sure, moments in the Two Gents that sound like nothing so much as a parody of Shakespeare ("I am but a fool, look you, and yet I have the wit to think my master is a kind of a knave; but that's all one. If he be but one knave" etc, etc). But the play is also full of asides and soliloquies that will sit much more comfortably in the uncontrived platform space than they do in a modern theatre.

There, as it were, is the rub. The desire to see Shakespeare's plays in their original setting is no more daft or reactionary than the desire to listen to classical music on authentic instruments. Indeed, it is possible that there would be more excitement over the reopening if it truly were an exhaustive, scholarly inquiry into the nature of the Shakespearean stage.

Even as it is, the character of the new-old theatre should refresh, rather than costume-dramatise, our idea of what Shakespeare wrote. He was, after all, a playwright who wrote verse, not a poet who happened to write plays. And his many self-conscious jokes about the stage were written with the Globe in mind.

When Prospero drew down the non-existent curtain on the Tempest ("Our revels now are ended") he declared, famously, that the actors, the cloud- capp'd towers and "the great globe itself" would dissolve into thin air. The very motto of the theatre - Totus mundus agit histrionem (literally: All the world plays the actor) - later became the launching-pad for a meditation on life in As You Like It. The Globe was the world, and the world was a stage.

There are may more examples of this. When Rosencrantz admitted to Hamlet that yes, the vogue for children's theatre was sweeping all before it, "Hercules and his load too," the audience of the day could look up at the flag fluttering over the Globe, and see Hercules with the world on his back. Shakespeare even gave Henry V, possibly the first play to be performed in the Globe in 1599, a narrator to apologise for the lousy special-effects: "Can this cockpit hold the vasty fields of France? Or may we cram within this wooden O the very casques that did affright the air at Agincourt?"

That was a nice joke, but in the centuries that followed the theatre world was invaded by a drive towards naturalism from which we have only recently recovered. Now that cinema and television have trounced the stage's ability to create believable sets, it is safe to revert to an undecorated, imaginary space - a playground for plays. The audience will be close to the actors; it will be able to hear and relish the words. So it is not so much that the space should suit the plays, that sitting in an Elizabethan setting should enhance our appreciation of the drama (though it might - there's nothing like a Greek amphitheatre for Greek tragedy), but that the plays should suit the space.

An exercise in nostalgia that wanted to go the whole hog would have to employ boy actors to play women, and speculate about Elizabethan pronunciation; both of which would seem like phoney postures. Nor is the Globe a precise reproduction. At one point it was discovered that the thick wooden pillars holding up the roof of the stage would block the sightlines from the audience, so they were replaced by inauthentic slimmer models. These may yet turn out to be a great loss. In Shakespeare's day, they were no doubt useful places for the actors to hide - perhaps Polonius was ducking behind one when he was stabbed through the arras by Hamlet, but they are trifles, e'en so.

The one significant period detail that might have been overlooked concerns the taking of drink. The Globe, like the other theatres of the day, was based on the architecture of an inn: a central yard surrounded by balconies. Boozing was an important part of the experience, both for the groundling promenaders and for the socialites in the upper tiers. It was alcohol, as it happened, that saved the life of one plucky man caught in the fire that blitzed the original Globe. "Nothing did perish but wood and straw," Sir Henry Wotion wrote to his nephew three days after the blaze. "Only one man had his breeches set on fire, that would perhaps have broiled him, if he had not by the benefit of a provident wit put it out with bottled ale."

There will, no doubt, be a certain amount of cod-Shakespearean waffle in the sandwich bars and cafes that will (it is hoped) spring up on Bankside. Theatregoers can look forward to their Falstaff baps and Macbeth Special brew. But that need not prevent the theatre itself from staging vibrant productions of the plays, in which we can jest at scars that never felt a wound.

Comments