How does our play please you?

After sampling the Globe theatre's experimental season Victoria McKee finds that there's not much of use to be learned about Shakespeare just from staging his plays in a theme park playhouse
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The Independent Online
`Tis here, but yet confused", (Othello, Act II scene I) would be a charitable epilogue to the "prologue season" of the pseudo-Elizabethan theatre on the banks of the Thames known as Shakespeare's Globe. Since the three-week season ended on 15 September, the Globe's artistic directorate has been pondering and pontificating, and today architects and academics will be meeting to analyse the lessons of that season, with a full board debriefing scheduled for next Monday.

"O brave new world" - of insights into Elizabethan drama - or just a very "wooden O"? That is the question: whether it will prove nobler than a theme theatre, where tourists on tight itineraries can pack in some Shakespeare in a suitably olde worlde setting without having to make the time-consuming trip to Stratford.

Let's forget the building, which has already been oft marvelled at. It is admirably fashioned of solid English oak and a lime and goat-hair plaster that will contract and settle with it, and is as splendid as anything can be that has been designed by a committee. (Our eyes would probably prefer the stage area to be plain timbered like the rest of the theatre, but the committee of academics who suggested the garish gilding, faux marble pillars and figurative reliefs insist it's more accurate and, worse still, are planning to spoil the simplicity of the rest.)

What will we learn from the building about the plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries that is unique? Actors seem more charitably disposed to the project so far than leading academics, and Shakespeare did caution against making the judicious grieve ("the censure of the which one must, in your allowance, outweigh a whole theatre of others").

Professor Andrew Gurr, an expert on the Elizabethan stage who is chairman of the Globe's "academic committee" feels that "we've learnt more about what shouldn't be done than what should", and can give good reasons why. "The unadventurous production [of the prologue season], the fact that it was staged as if for a proscenium theatre, the incongruity of the modern costuming ..." his list goes - justifiably - on and on. But the actor/director Julian Glover, on the artistic directorate, counters: "The general mood was very positive, and we came away with an absolute commitment to open officially next year with a proper season. Personally, I've got a lust to work in it!"

Undoubtedly, the construction of what will become the "International Shakespeare Globe Centre" has fulfilled the promise of the film Field of Dreams: "If you build it, they will come." Audiences have been large and enthusiastic and many performances have sold out. The average was 96 per cent capacity over the run of The Two Gentlemen of Verona, which wouldn't be the greatest draw even with an all-star cast (which this fledgling Globe company isn't) or the pulling power of the Royal Shakespeare Company behind it.

"Two Gentlemen is the slightest of Shakespeare's plays," says the Shakespeare scholar Professor Stanley Wells, director of the Shakespeare Institute of the University of Birmingham at Stratford and a director of the Globe. Like me, Dr Wells was not unduly impressed either by the choice of play or the performance. "It's a pity that they didn't attempt a Globe play," Dr Wells says. "Two Gentlemen, I personally think, was Shakespeare's first play, written in 1588 for a less sophisticated theatre than the Globe."

What should have been the "two-hours' traffic of the stage" lasted for three because so much acting was done between lines rather than on them, and so many unnecessary tables and chairs were lugged about. As the American professor JL Styan pointed out in his seminal book on Shakespeare's Stagecraft, Shakespeare's plays were written to rely on "word-scenery" and "the visualising power of language" - which is what those using this new space should explore. Indeed, in the hilarious "rude mechanicals" rehearsals in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Shakespeare mocks those who think they have to have realistic walls or moonshine.

The cappuccino cups and cafe tables, like the Paul Smith-style linen suits and Lycra jogging gear, might have been fine on a bare stage but grated against the elaborate Elizabethan-style painted arras and the red marbled, gold-topped Corinthian columns. Why go to all the trouble of creating such a period piece and then not be true to period?

The wonderful thing about Shakespeare as it was originally performed is, as Professor Styan puts it, that the stage could be "as empty or as full, as anchored or as shifting, as particular or as anonymous, as our fancies make it". That is what we should be seeing at the Globe - sans production, set, lighting or costume designers to come between the effect and it. Then we could explore how Shakespeare controlled his audience through the tragical- comical-historical-pastoral transitions in his plays and the positioning of actors - and why certain entrances and exits work the way they do.

When there wasn't an interval (as there is, alas, at the new Globe), it was even more crucial to vary the pace, alternating crowd scenes with intensely personal ones, serious with comic. With no intervals audiences would, undoubtedly, have visited the orange-sellers or the cesspits or hailed friends during bits that bored them.

I sat through three performances from different vantage points: as a pounds 5 standing "groundling" and a pounds 16 posh nob in the middle gallery, and with a pounds 12 unreserved seat, and found the most interesting part of the show the audience. There was someone following the text in Japanese at virtually every performance, Americans with Harrods carrier bags and British blue stockings letting their children stay up late to savour the experience.

The Globe's chief executive, Michael Holden, has warned that if any "Globe groupie", as Professor Wells calls them, turns up in Elizabethan costume they will be ejected from the theatre. The theatre's education officer, Patrick Spottiswoode, running an ambitious year-round programme, agrees. "That would be really naff. We don't want people to time-travel in the Globe. We want a real response."

How to make the response different from that of a pantomime is a challenge to which both actors and audiences at the Globe still have to rise. Shakespeare's audience "was not there to counterfeit its participation in the play, like that watching a Victorian melodrama. It was caught up in an act of creative collaboration," Professor Styan noted. Things have been too self-conscious at the Globe so far.

"If this is just going to be another theatre space, then we probably don't need it," sighed Dr Wells as he left his backless bench with obvious relief. "I can't say I felt any illumination from this."

"To thine own self be true," Shakespeare advised, "and it shall follow as the night the day thou canst not then be false to any man." This theatre does not yet know how to be true to its own self. And why should it? It is a project that grew out of an American tourist's mistaken belief that Shakespeare's Globe Theatre still existed in Bankside, and his determination to make his dream come true. That he was the popular actor Sam Wannamaker makes it a good story, that he died before it was completed makes it a poignant one, but is it like a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing?

Professor Wells thinks it might be. "It could be a great mistake to think that this was an ideal space to play. It may not have been! What works may not necessarily be authentic, and what is authentic may not work for us." Shakespeare probably longed for a stage without pillars to hamper the sightlines.

Yet it was undeniably intriguing to peer up over what is claimed to be the first thatching to be done in London since the Great Fire of 1666 at giant cranes, jet planes, and the tower of the Bankside Power Station which, when it becomes a new Tate Gallery in 1999, should further make the area a Mecca for cultural tourists.

Whereas for some performances of Two Gentlemen there was room to stroll about, sit on a shooting stick, bounce a baby in a sling or smooch with a lover, for the one-off performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream by Northern Broadsides (on September 3) the groundlings were so thickly packed they could only exercise their mouths and hands to cheer and clap.

The Northern Broadsides production was perhaps truest to the flavour of what Elizabeth theatre might have been like. The provincial company apologised that it had just flown in from Brasilia (as arduous a journey as coming down from Stratford would have been in the 16th century) and their costumes had been lost en route. Having thus won the audience's sympathy, they proceeded to put on a stout and spirited rendition of the Dream which did not depend on costumes, scenery, sound or lighting effects for its amusing immediacy.

Perhaps the Globe would work better as a much-needed London venue for travelling players accustomed, like Northern Broadside and the players of Shakespeare's time, to touring cattle markets and cider houses. But it must be remembered that Shakespeare's plays were also performed to refined audiences in the elite private theatres. Julian Glover, who watched the Dream from all vantage points, thought that "there was too much shouting in this production, and shouting is not the answer".

So what is? No one seems to know. "I don't think we've got there yet," Glover admits. "The theatre has not yet been used as it was meant to be."

Tis true, tis pity, and pity tis true that no one seems able yet to use the awkward space effectively. But why should we, when today we have the technology to build a stage like this without the two huge pillars that get in everybody's way? The pillars have been a cross to bear, and have already been moved several times, to several different positions, as nobody is quite sure where they would originally have been. In Johannes de Witt's 1596 sketch of the Swan Theatre, the pillars are further upstage.

When the Globe's stage is finally set in oak - the current one is a mockup of plywood and plaster which can still be altered - there should be seats on the on-stage balcony, as there were in Shakespeare's time, as well as in the "gentlemen's boxes" at the sides of the stage.

"We're not saying, `This is the way' - we're trying to offer another way," says Mr Spottiswoode. "We're going to be trying all sorts of things, and will certainly be doing productions in Elizabethan dress - maybe some with men playing the women's parts as they would have - as well as modern dress ones."

So if the Globe's first tentative revels have offended, think but this and all is mended. And remember that this is the realisation of a dream for which no concrete blueprint exists - as the original theatre site is submerged forever beneath London's first, listed, concrete building.

The author is a Shakespeare scholar who writes on contemporary interpretations of Elizabethan theatre.