If you’ve ever been for a stroll down London’s South Bank, whether to visit the Tate Modern, take photos of the tourist-enthralling skyline, or just for a breath of fresh air, you’ve probably walked past the neat, almost-round, mock-Tudor Globe theatre, a near-perfect replica of the one that the Bard himself inhabited.
“Now is the time to re-evaluate your understanding of Shakespeare”
But maybe you’ve never bothered to go inside. You don’t really like Shakespeare, after all. All of those lessons about Othello and Romeo and Juliet, and page after page of Hamlet taught you that. Why would you bother going to see one of them performed onstage? If this is your attitude, now is the time to re-evaluate your understanding of Shakespeare. No matter how intense your hatred for iambic pentameter on the page, forget about it for now. The stage is different. Will was a playwright, after all, and his work was written to be performed, not read.
“You might find yourself face-to-face with an actor weaving through the crowds”
The Globe is a truly wonderful place, where those centuries-old stories come to life. From the side of the Thames, you go in through a pair of high, beautifully wrought gates, into the paved outer courtyard. Here there are stands for refreshments, places to rent cushions if you have a seated ticket, and ponchos on sale if it’s raining. For only £5, you can become a groundling for a few hours (though be prepared to stand constantly, and remember the theatre is open air…). If you fancy paying a little more, you can get a covered seat in the stands, making you eye-level with or above the actors. The very-British queues for standing room start long before the performances themselves, but anywhere will get you a good view. If you’re not physically leaning on the stage, you might find yourself face-to-face with an actor weaving through the crowds – or splashed with water, if that’s what the play involves.
“The doors, columns, floor, balcony, and Heavens are all made in the style that Shakespeare himself would have recognised”
Once inside, you’ll have plenty of time to admire the theatre itself. The beautifully replicated stands aside, the stage is really the focal point. The doors, columns, floor, balcony, and Heavens are all made in the style that Shakespeare himself would have recognised – though often with intriguing twists. This is a modern theatre, after all. Alongside the basic scenery, often the Globe will place large facades over the doors onstage to create a whole different setting. Props and scenery around the columns set location, and various modes of getting onstage can be added for different performances, including a ramp up from the audience, a ladder on one side, and even zipwires…
“The whole thing works brilliantly in action”
Take the current production of Much Ado About Nothing, for example. Perhaps you’ve read the play in class, perhaps you’ve seen the film with Emma Thompson, maybe you’ve even seen it performed elsewhere in period clothing. Forget all that: we’re off to Mexico, complete with bright fabrics, flashes of Spanish, and the usual doors onto stage replaced with a train. The change of scene might seem jarring on paper, but the whole thing works brilliantly in action. Like their previous readjusting of Othello to a World War One setting (featuring those zipwires I mentioned earlier), the plot flows perfectly into the shape of its new surroundings, its characters and events adapting almost without notice to the alternative setting.
“The comedies become laugh-out-loud in the hands of talented actors”
For those worried about the preservation of the Bard’s words, don’t worry – it’s all still there. And for those worried that means you won’t understand a thing, don’t worry – it’s the performance that gives it all meaning. Sometimes a line that you analysed in English Lit, struggling to see its significance, suddenly becomes crystal clear. On stage, the comedies become laugh-out-loud in the hands of talented actors, when you didn’t even smile reading it on the page. Tragedies become emotional, histories more intriguing and relatable, and everything is given a new lease of life. And it’s not just about Shakespeare himself. Yes, his words are the ones used, but they aren’t the only thing which speak volumes – the costuming, setting, music, dancing, even the casting says so much about the play as a whole, bringing it up to date and making centuries-old stories seem fresh.
I can’t emphasise enough how much I love this theatre, the plays it produces, and the people behind it all. If you find yourself in London with a spare few hours, it’s well worth a visit. Whether you enjoyed Shakespeare at school or not, you’re bound to love it in the form it was always supposed to be experienced in – as a play.
Image Courtesy of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre.