Although the West End is London’s favourite theatre-going area – with dozens of plays and musicals entertaining locals and tourists throughout the year – the city’s most special theatre house is a modest Elizabethan playhouse on the south bank of the Thames, made famous by its historical association with England’s most celebrated playwright…
Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre sits snugly among trendy new buildings of steel, glass and concrete, an island of Renaissance history in the modern heart of the capital. From its white plaster walls and black Tudor beams, to the moss-capped thatched roof above, it brings a lost sixteenth century world to the capital. Although most buildings of its time had square corners, the Globe was a new type of circular playhouse, designed to bring the best dramatic experience to the eager crowds that flocked to enjoy the tragedies, histories and comedies of the day.
As charming as this building is, it is not the same Globe where Shakespeare himself once trod the boards as an actor between writing new plays. Instead it’s a twentieth-century replica, built with painstaking care to recreate the Globe as closely as is possible with the knowledge that survives today of the building’s design and construction. In fact the Shakespeare’s Globe of today in Southwark is the third theatre of its type in London to carry the name since the original first opened its doors in 1599.
Dramatic performances by professional actors in dedicated theatres was a brand-new phenomenon in Elizabethan England. The first such theatre was built for purpose around 1576, just outside the walls of east London in Shoreditch, since actors had been forbidden from performing within London as a measure to reduce crowds and thereby slow the spread of the deadly Black Death plague!
As well as actor and playwright, Shakespeare was a shareholder within the company of players in which he worked, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. They performed at various new theatres around 1580, including this first permanent venue in Shoreditch – known as just The Theatre. After a dispute with the landowner over possession of the theatre itself, the players dismantled the wooden building and transported its timber to the south side of the Thames, ready to build a new playhouse, bigger and better than anything else of the time. And so The Globe Playhouse was built, close to the Thames’ edge near the original London Bridge, in another area just outside the jurisdiction of the City of London. This was only a few metres from the Rose theatre, where Shakespeare’s troupe had performed some of his earliest plays.
This new home for The Lord Chamberlain’s Men provided financial security for the players, a cooperative outfit that shared the income and debts between themselves. At this time the audience were a broad cross-section of Elizabethan society, from the ladies and gentlemen that could afford to sit in enclosed boxes close to stage, to the ‘groundlings’ who paid a penny to stand and watch three-hour plays from the floor. The open-top design was necessary to allow the actors to work under natural light, and plays were performed through the afternoon rather than evening for the same reason.
The Globe saw the premieres of some of Shakespeare’s greatest works, opened in time to witness the first stagings of Henry V, Hamlet and Twelfth Night at the turn of the century. It survived the passing of Elizabeth I in 1603 and succession of King James I, until it was destroyed by fire during an early performance of Shakespeare’s King Henry VIII in 1613. Fire was always a hazard around timber buildings; the incendiary end here was the result of a real cannon fired during the history play as a stage effect.
Elizabethan theatre was still in its heyday, and a replacement was quickly constructed on the same site. This second Globe continued until 1642, when the Christian fundamentalist Puritans forbade the performance of plays and effectively closed all London’s theatres!
Today’s Globe Theatre could be said to be almost fifty years in the making, inspired by a campaign started by American actor Sam Wanamaker after his first visit to London in 1949. The Hollywood artist wanted to pay homage to the original Globe, and found only a bronze plaque in a rundown backstreet of Southwark to mark the site of his trade’s most hallowed ground. Wanamaker’s personal mission became to raise awareness and funds for a new Globe to be built in London. The project was completed in 1997, sadly four years after the actor’s death.
Despite no illustrations and only dim surviving details of the original or even its 1613 rebuild, architects and historians tried to reproduce the new Globe as authentically as possible, gleaning essential facts from other contemporary playhouses. This latest Globe does now have electricity, but there is no in-built speaker system, and actors must fill the open theatre with their unamplified voices, often accompanied by period acoustic instruments. The plaster-and-lath walls include real goat hair, a substitute for the cows’ hair of the original, while the roof is thatched with real straw. This makes Shakespeare’s Globe the only thatched property in modern London (after an edict of 1666, following the Great Fire of London, which banned thatch from the city).
Today the Globe theatre is open throughout the summer months, and as well as traditional Shakespearean works in period costume the playhouse has also hosted touring Chinese theatre groups – in 2015 the National Theatre of China performed Richard III in Mandarin, followed by a Hong Kong group playing Macbeth in Cantonese. The wooden benches in the round galleries are as hard as ever, although cushions can be hired to soften the seat, and rain macs are also available to keep off the wet English weather when required. Adjoining the open-top Globe is an indoor theatre, named the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, furnished in the Jacobean style of the Blackfriars Theatre, a former Shakespeare venue.
Besides the sight and smells of an open-air period theatre, visitors to today’s Globe can also enjoy a permanent exhibition dedicated to the playhouse and the history of Renaissance drama, as well as watch young actors practising their art, including dramatic live swordplay under the tutelage of experienced stage mentors. And if your visit is via London Bridge station, less than ten minutes walk, be sure to come through Park Street, the quiet London backstreet with a rebuilt Rose Theatre, and the marked spot of Shakespeare’s very first Globe theatre of 1599.