Shakespeare’s Globe has released more than 100 of its plays in cinema and DVD broadcasts and made some available for free viewing on You Tube and the BBC iPlayer as well as its own paid service, Globe Player. This is surprising as one would have thought this was a venue in which experiencing live, rather than recorded, performances was essential.
The entire point of Shakespeare’s Globe is to give audiences an idea of what it was like to attend that theatre in The Bard’s day. Authenticity is given a high priority—it is a reconstruction of the first Globe Theatre in which Shakespeare worked. No steel was used in the construction of the current building which is made entirely from English oak. The roof is thatched and has a whacking great hole in the middle adding to the number of potential environmental distractions including pigeons flying into the theatre, aircraft noise and inclement weather. There are no seats but rather benches and, most importantly, the ‘stalls area’ is standing only.
Authenticity is not limited to the building. Initially, casting and staging was as in Shakespeare’s day: the female characters were played by male actors and the plays (even those which end with the stage littered with corpses) concluded with a dance. Most significantly, audiences are also expected to play a role being cast as ’groundlings’—the common folk of the Bard’s period who could not afford seats and so stood around the stage.
Modern audiences are expected to behave ‘in character’ to add to the atmosphere of authenticity. There is a lot of interplay with the on-stage cast which occasionally nudges performances towards panto. Anyone attempting to take a sneaky seat on the steps is open to rebuke from the stewards. If it rains, well, getting wet is just part of the fun.
This all adds up to a venue where the experience of attending is more important than the actual play. The potential distractions (physical discomfort, noise) and the limitations of the theatre are so significant that, ironically, you would not go to Shakespeare’s Globe hoping to see a definitive production of one of his plays. For once, the play is not the thing.
The venue does not lend itself to imaginative interpretations of the plays. The stage is fixed, with two permanent pillars that do little to help audience sightlines, and sets are extremely limited. As a result, the plays usually comprise the cast striding around a bare stage proclaiming the verse. The costumes are decidedly lush, evocative of the period.
Out of curiosity, I went to a Shakespeare’s Globe a couple of times when it first opened and, while never dismissing it as a tourist trap (as many do), did not develop the affection that would prompt me to make a habit of attending. It was a ‘been there, done that’ experience. So, the filmed recordings offer the chance to see how the venue has developed since it opened.
I watched recordings of Romeo and Juliet and As You Like It from 2009 when Dominic Dromgoole was artistic director. The purist approach had dimmed a bit and women played the female roles. The nature of the venue is such that I tend to regard it as best suited to comedies and have seen only one tragedy. As luck would have it, with the recordings, I have now seen the Globe’s Romeo and Juliet three times.
Dromgoole directs Romeo and Juliet and tackles the limitations of the venue sensitively while maintaining a ‘traditional’ approach to the play. Shifts in mood that might normally be signalled by changes in lighting are prompted by discrete musical cues from live musicians. The duel is brutal and tremendously exciting.
The recording allows for close-ups of the actors, so Ellie Kendrick’s excellent approach to Juliet—eager eyes and mouth but nervously twitching fingers—can be appreciated in full.
Director Thea Sharrock takes a less traditional approach to As You Like It. The static nature of the stage means the shift between puritanical court and the freedom of the forest is signalled by the basic method of black shrouds being whisked away from the pillars. The action regularly spills off the stage with the cast dashing amongst the groundlings and entering and exiting through the audience. This approach allows a surprisingly rousing version of the “Seven Ages of Man” speech with a louche Jaques in the centre of the audience.
The filming of the plays does not always hide the limitations of the venue. During Romeo and Juliet, the audience are generally filmed in soft focus so their presence is apparent but distractions, such as chatting or rummaging through bags, is obscured. As You Like It on the other hand gives a more accurate impression of what it is like to attend the Globe by capturing the backgrounds with the same clarity as the performers. Few things can better kill the mood of a romantic scene than a sign in the background pointing to the theatre toilets.
In Shakespeare’s day, plague closed London theatres and prompted companies to take shows on the road, staging them in courtyards and pubs. Shakespeare’s Globe takes stripped-down versions of its productions to the regions. Although the text is performed in full, these are highly informal productions and tend to be staged in large parks or the gardens of cathedrals. Audiences are encouraged to treat them as picnics and the cast are not averse to pinching the occasional chicken leg sometimes while the play is in progress.
A touring production of Romeo and Juliet was upstaged by a romantic gesture worthy of Shakespeare himself when a wedding party, holding their reception in a nearby gazebo, booked bride, groom and guests to attend the show. It made for some interesting conversations during the interval.
This perhaps sums up my reservations about Shakespeare’s Globe. The atmosphere is fantastic; outside of The Fringe it is hard to think of a venue that better captures the communal spirit of theatre-going. But I remember little about the actual plays.
Because of the high level of audience involvement, Shakespeare’s Globe seems particularly vulnerable in the current health crisis. Theatres responded to terrorist outrages by introducing intrusive security checks. Getting out of lockdown might require some sort of compromise at least in the short term. Theatres might be compelled to fill every other seat or require audiences to wear face-masks.
The success of Shakespeare’s Globe is heavily dependent upon the communal atmosphere which will be destroyed if audience members must stand well away from each other or be masked as if they have stepped out of surgery or have just finished spot of welding. A sterile atmosphere may be healthy, but it does not prompt a lively or engaging theatrical experience.