History rebuilds itself, this time as farce

There is a certain cute madness about the Globe Theatre, but the project is tainted by the fakery of our age

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The reconstruction of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, now nearing completion, is weird, unsettling. Yesterday actors were allowed in for the first time, to imbibe the atmosphere and prepare for today's workshop performance, the first in a series ahead of the official opening next summer.

From its inception this project seems to have been specifically designed as a provocation or rebuke to English cultural attitudes. Shakespeare is, after all, more than just the greatest creative artist we, or perhaps humanity, has produced. He is also an embodiment of England. What you do to him, you do to us.

The American actor Sam Wanamaker came to England in 1949 and went to Southwark to seek out the site of the Globe. He discovered that the only memorial we had was a neglected plaque on a brewery wall. There's the first rebuke. What kind of people are we that we could happily all but ignore this cockpit of our identity? Americans seize on every fragment of their limited heritage and celebrate it like crazy; we, riddled with heritage, just toss up some scuzzy plaque.

He then tried to build the thing. Here's a provocation. Languid, sophisticated English voices protest - oh come on, dear, this is Disneyland. Shakespeare is wonderful, yes, but things have moved on a bit since then. We have a, you know, living theatre, with upholstered seats, air-conditioning, angular architecture, directors with contemporary interpretations and proper actors. The giggling sub-text is that Wanamaker is like that American who bought London Bridge thinking it was the one with towers. He just doesn't get it.

The final, embarrassing manifestation of our national pettiness and can't- do mentality came in the Seventies. Moronic lefties on Southwark Council opposed the scheme because Shakespeare was elitist and his plays were, according to one visionary councillor, "tosh". You couldn't make it up, could you? Well, Shakespeare probably could.

And now the ultimate rebuke, the final provocation. The Globe is built. Wanamaker is dead, but he has got what he wanted - a real Globe with an unseasoned oak structure, a thatched roof and standing space for the groundlings.

Nearby, at the Barbican and the National, Shakespeare's plays will still be produced with all the modern paraphernalia. But here in Southwark, Hamlet and those other phantoms will have to do their stuff with only God's air-conditioning and close to zero stage technology. And we have this eerily new building surrounded not by brothels - at least, I don't think so - but by office blocks and roads. Like I said, it's weird, unsettling.

There are two justifications for this project. The first is the simple cult of the monument. This, after all, is the place where something incontrovertibly great occurred. We have a square dedicated to Nelson's victories; Blenheim stands as a glorious celebration of Marlborough's military genius; Stonehenge is ringed with sacred barbed wire. But what Shakespeare did in Southwark dwarfs even these triumphs. Macbeth's "She should have died hereafter" speech is worth a hundred Trafalgars or a dozen stone-age telescopes.

So, as a monument, why not? And if it irks a few grisly Southwark Trots, so much the better.

But a monument is a static thing, a mute reminder, a passive shrine for those who care to look. The Globe as monument didn't have to be any kind of recreation, it didn't have to be a theatre. And this brings me to the more complex second justification -authenticity.

For Wanamaker has not inspired a Globe simply for looking at. This theatre really is a theatre. There will be shows. The building will not be a mere homage to Shakespeare's greatness, it will be an attempt to recreate the atmosphere of his original performances. The thatch and the oak are there to serve a theatrical rather than just an architectural aesthetic. Here, the design and the materials announce, is where you get the real thing, the plays as Shakespeare intended them to be seen.

These are deep waters. The first and most familiar point is that Shakespeare would probably not have used the Globe if he could have had the National. Indeed, if he were around now, he might not have written plays at all, perhaps he would have made films or written novels. And, purely as theatrical experience, what does this attempt at fidelity tell us? Watching an artfully recreated performance in 1999 cannot be the same as watching the original in 1599. Macbeth is as great now as it was then, but, though the greatness represents some kind of fugitive, hard-to-define continuity, the context is always changing.

The authenticist can reply that his authenticity is not intended to be exclusive. It will co-exist with modern interpretations. Its sole function is to provide some glimpse of how Shakespeare was first seen and understood. It may be no more than a glimpse, but it is something, a small nudge to our sense of perspective, a reminder of what incredible changes these works have survived.

I don't think this is quite good enough. Our problem today is that we can recreate anything. The Egyptians toiled to produce their pyramids as strange emblems of the passage from life to death; in Las Vegas, they can knock one up in concrete and glass and use it as a hotel and gambling joint. Such facility flatters us and abuses the past. A pyramid? Big deal. We can do that. The thing itself, stripped of its meaning and context, can be thrown together anywhere we like. We look at the Luxor Hotel and then we look at the Great Pyramid and soon we begin to wonder if there ever was any meaning or context. The thing is just a thing.

The Southwark Globe is not a Las Vegas hotel. But it is similarly tainted. Its clean plaster walls and new, unseasoned oak are as pristine as a new Georgian terrace built to satisfy the Prince of Wales or a Beverly Hills hacienda designed to convince an LA millionaire that he has "taste". As pristine and as inert.

Ah, the terrace and hacienda builders will say, but other ages have attempted to recreate the past, and see how highly we now rate those attempts. Look at the Renaissance reliving of the classical Golden Age, look at Victorian Gothic.

But they were trying to relive the whole package, meaning included, because of intellectual and imaginative conviction. We just fake it because we can't think of anything better to do, or because we have no confidence in what we are. There is a world of difference between what Michelangelo was trying to do with classical architecture and what Quinlan Terry is now doing. If you can't see that, your age has blinded you to history.

The Globe's problem is that it is a fake built in an age that has been jaded and corrupted by fakery. Sure, there is a certain cute madness about the project, and, purely as a monument, it possesses a kind of harmless, wrong-headed heroism. But it is destined to look and feel tacky, a celebration of an age that wanted to make genius and art as easy and as comfortable as the Shakespeare T-shirts that are already on sale in Southwark. Wanamaker's rebuke has certainly worked, but not, perhaps, in the way he intended.

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