Today, 23rd April 2014, marks the 450th anniversary of the birth of William Shakespeare (as far as we know!). It is also the date on which the Globe Theatre on Bankside, London, opens its doors for the new season. I am a huge theatre fan – some might call me a tad obsessed – and the Globe is one of my very favourite theatres. Essentially it is a reconstruction of the famous theatre of Shakespeare’s day. However it is far more than a tourist trap and museum piece – it is a vibrant working theatre that puts on some fantastic productions.
History – The Original Globe
In Shakespeare’s day, theatres were not allowed in the City of London: they were supposedly immoral and haunted by undesirables. Instead, theatres were concentrated in the East End and on the south side of the Thames. Shakespeare belonged to the troupe of actors associated with the first purpose-built London theatre, imaginatively titled ‘The Theatre’. This was located in Shoreditch, but after a dispute with the building’s owner the actors managed a moonlight flit, dismantling the entire theatre and rebuilding it in Southwark, where it became known as the Globe. There is a famous reference to it at the beginning of Henry V:
“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?”
The Globe was up and running by 1599, but burned down in 1613 after a fire caused by cannons during a performance of Henry VIII, which set the thatched roof alight. Rebuilt in 1614, it was closed by the Puritans in 1642 and pulled down a couple of years later.
History – The Modern Globe
The present-day Globe was the brainchild of American actor Sam Wanamaker (father of Zoe), who sadly did not survive to see his project completed. He founded the Shakespeare’s Globe Trust twenty-one years after he first visited London in 1949, surprised to see no existing memorial to Shakespeare and his theatre in London. The site on Bankside was secured and the building constructed; the new Globe finally opened in 1997, with a performance of – appropriately enough – Henry V.
The modern-day theatre is as close a reconstruction of the original Globe as possible (taking health and safety requirements into account), based on documents from the period and archaeological evidence of other theatres existing at that time, including the Rose and the Curtain.
The modern Globe incorporates the theatre, the Exhibition (showcasing the story of the Globe and Shakespeare) and an educational programme of lectures, talks and events. Globe productions tour the country every year, and a new initiative, ‘World Hamlet’, will see a Globe production of Hamlet tour to every country in the world in the next couple of years.
Later in his career Shakespeare wrote not only for the Elizabethan style of open-air theatre exemplified in the Globe, but also for the Jacobean style of indoor, candlelit theatre. The Sam Wanamaker Theatre is a newly-built Jacobean theatre on the Globe site, and it has just finished its first season.
The season in the Globe runs from 23rd April until mid-October. This is understandable considering the theatre is an open-air one! Productions usually go on sale early in the year, around January, becoming available for members to book first, before the general public. There’s no rush though – I find that plays rarely sell out here until a week or a few days beforehand, except for when there is a very short run or someone famous is in the cast (the 2012 production of Twelfth Night sold out very quickly, but I suspect this is because Stephen Fry was playing Malvolio!). Both matinee and evening performances take place, usually on every day of the week. There are also a number of special midnight performances throughout the year, when the show starts at midnight and ends at around three in the morning!
Tickets here are very well-priced, I think. Prices for seats range from £15 to around £40, which is much better than West End theatres. However, I like the standing tickets which cost a bargainous £5! These tickets offer the best view of the stage – I love this, most theatres charge more for a better view but here it is the complete opposite. I also find it so much more atmospheric in the pit; I feel much more a part of the action.
I only bought a seated ticket once – when I was with a friend who didn’t fancy the idea of standing – and the seats were so uncomfortable that both of us said we’d rather stand next time! It’s possible to hire cushions and seat backs but I’d rather just stand up to be perfectly honest. I do ache afterwards but I feel it’s worth it.
Theatregoers in wheelchairs get a good deal as a ramp is placed directly in front of the stage, so you get a great view from prime position. Those with other physical disabilities are probably best off booking seated tickets. When you book online you can choose your own seats and I would recommend booking the end of a row and selecting the ground floor level, as the stairs to higher tiers can be narrow and tricky to navigate. Disabled patrons are entitled to half-price tickets plus one companion if required.
Each Globe season consists of a number of Shakespeare productions plus a selection of other plays, some new and some well-known. The 2014 season focuses on war – mindful of the fact that this year marks the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I. This year’s Shakespeare productions are Antony and Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, The Comedy of Errors and Titus Andronicus (a revival of Lucy Bailey’s acclaimed 2006 production). The other plays are all new: Doctor Scroggy’s War by Howard Brenton, Holy Warriors by David Eldridge, Simon Armitage’s The Last Days of Troy and Richard Bean’s Pitcairn. Additionally, Lope de Vega’s 16th century Spanish classic Punishment Without Revenge will be staged in Spanish.
Each year, the Globe tours productions across the UK. Last year, Henry VI Parts I, II and III was performed on the sites of ancient battles across the UK. This year, King Lear, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Much Ado About Nothing will all tour.
The Globe also puts on some fantastic projects. In 2012, to coincide with the London Olympics, the Globe to Globe project featured every single Shakespeare play, each performed in a different language by a different theatre group from another country. Highlights for me included Measure for Measure performed in Russian by members of Moscow’s Vakhtangov Theatre, Cymbeline performed by actors from the world’s newest country, South Sudan, and Othello: The Remix (a hip-hop version) performed by a company from the USA.
This year, the ‘World Hamlet’ project begins: a tour of Hamlet to every country in the world. After preview performances at Middle Temple Hall (a stunning sixteenth-century building which saw the first ever performance of Twelfth Night back in 1602), the production officially begins its tour at the Globe tonight.
As you might expect, there are a lot of tourists at Shakespeare’s Globe: for many people, a production here is about the experience of attending an open-air performance in an Elizabethan theatre as much as it is about the quality of the play and the production. However, this does not mean that productions here are only for those wanting a ‘tourist experience’. Shows here are typically fairly traditionally staged (a couple of productions in 2012 even had all-male casts, as would have been the case in the 16th century), with few gimmicks. However they are invariably well-acted, not at all pretentious and really bring home the power of Shakespeare’s language, his tragedy and comedy. The best productions I have ever seen of Much Ado About Nothing and The Tempest were performed at the Globe, beating their much more expensive and star-studded equivalents in the West End.
A few actors, such as Pearce Quigley and James Garnon, appear at the theatre regularly, while others appear only for certain productions. Gemma Arterton began her stage career at the Globe; other actors such as Charles Edwards and Mark Rylance (the former Artistic Director) have performed here.
The Sam Wanamaker Theatre
Deservedly named after the Globe’s visionary founder, this reconstruction of a Jacobean theatre opened late last year. For the first time, performances on the Globe site now take place all year round: in the winter, when the Globe itself is closed, the Sam Wanamaker opens its doors for the season. Inside it is utterly beautiful – small, like a doll’s house, stunningly decorated, and lit entirely by candles (no idea how that got past the health and safety people, but I am very glad it did!). Concessions to modernity include padded seating, but you are likely to be a little bit squashed wherever you sit, as the reconstruction is designed to be as authentic as possible.
Prices are a bit higher than at the Globe; they are normally around £15-£40 but can rise as high as £75 for opera performances. Standing tickets are available for £10, but these are at the top and the back of the theatre and don’t offer as good a view as in the Globe. On the plus side, you are indoors so at least you know you won’t be rained on! I haven’t much experience of different seating in this theatre: so far I’ve always sat in the pit, which I like as you are really close to the action.
Though Shakespeare is most commonly associated with the Globe, later in his life he wrote for the new style of indoor Jacobean theatre – The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest are examples of plays he wrote with this kind of theatre in mind. However, the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse didn’t show any Shakespeare plays for its first season, choosing instead to focus on other playwrights. John Webster’s revenge tragedy The Duchess of Malfi and Francis Beaumont’s play-within-a-play comedy The Knight of the Burning Pestle were both fantastic productions: completely different, they really made the most of the space. I also loved Eileen Atkins’ performance of some of Victorian actress Ellen Terry’s Shakespeare lectures.
I’m really excited for the future of this Playhouse, which will continue to stage productions during the summer, including odd performances of Globe productions, giving audiences the chance to experience outdoor performances indoors! There is also an exciting programme of concerts and lectures planned.
Exhibition and Tour
Confession: I last visited the Exhibition in 2009, so it may have changed since then. It is located underneath the theatre, and I remember it as a fascinating look at Shakespeare, the history of the Globe and Bankside, and some of the costumes and props used in productions. An audio guide is available in a number of languages, including English, French, Japanese and Russian.
An adult Exhibition and Tour ticket costs £13.50; discounts are available for children, students, seniors and those with a ticket for a performance. A discount is also available if you want a ticket for the Exhibition only.
The tour takes you into the Globe to learn about the theatre and its history. Tours are in English only but you can get information sheets in a variety of languages. During matinee performances in the Globe, the tour takes you to the nearby archaeological remains of the Rose Theatre instead. I definitely recommend doing both tours if you have the chance, as they are both fascinating and really informative.
This year, tours to the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse will be available: I am really looking forward to these and I intend to book myself on one as soon as possible!
Shakespeare’s Globe puts on a number of educational events for all ages. This year, a special series of lectures by Shakespeare scholars will mark the 450th anniversary of his birth. The ‘Read Not Dead’ project stages readings by professional casts of plays produced between 1567 and 1642. The Sam Wanamaker Festival sees drama school students stage scenes by Shakespeare and his contemporaries in the Globe. There are lots more events each year – check the website for more details.
The Globe shop stocks a wide range of Shakespeare and related texts, as well as DVDs of Globe performances. On a more frivolous note, there are some excellent Shakespeare-related gift items including an Oyster card (London travel card) holder emblazoned with a quote from The Merry Wives of Windsor, “The world’s mine oyster”; jewellery made from Shakespeare text; ‘Shakespearean insults’ magnetic poetry, and small gifts like pens, rubbers (“Out, out, damned spot!”) and bookmarks.
Food and Drink
There is a Café Bar in the foyer serving hot and cold drinks, sandwiches and cakes. The food is pricey but very tasty. There is another café near the Sackler Studios, and stalls are available outdoors beside the Globe Theatre.
The Swan Bar and Restaurant is more upmarket and has a lovely view of the Thames. It’s pricey and I have only been a couple of times: once to the bar for a drink on my birthday, and once to the restaurant when I had a Groupon offer for afternoon tea, which was yummy. If you can afford it, or want a special treat, then I do recommend a visit.
Location and Access
Shakespeare’s Globe is located on the South Bank of the Thames, near Tate Modern. The nearest tube stations are Blackfriars, Mansion House and Southwark. A good way to approach the theatre is via the Millennium Bridge which gives you a great view. If you like to travel by boat, Bankside Pier is right by the theatre.
Shakespeare’s Globe, 21 New Globe Walk, Bankside, London, SE1 9DT
+44 (0)20 7902 1400 (General), +44 (0)20 7401 9919 (Box Office)
Kickstarter Project: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1898580232/globe-to-globe-hamlet