The genesis of the original Globe Theatre is a story of intrigue, daring and initiative – an actor’s out-of-hours tale as dramatic as any portrayed on stage.
In his excellent book for children, Shakespeare – His Work and His World (beautifully illustrated by Robert Ingpen) Michael Rosen tells the tale like this:
‘It’s the middle of the night on the edge of London, a few days after Christmas Day, 1598. The River Thames is frozen over, snow is falling. The roofs of the timbered houses and the nearby fields are white with it. Four buildings stand higher than the nearby houses, shops, bowling-alleys, gambling houses and taverns – a windmill, a church and two theatres. One of the theatres is called the Curtain, and the other simply the Theatre….
.…tonight sixteen men are pulling down the Theatre. Two of them are brothers. They run a company of actors who put on plays, and with them there’s a builder and his workmen. As the men hurry about their work, it’s clear that what’s going on is secret and must be done as quickly as possible…. Two strangers arrive and start quizzing them. The workmen lie and say they are only taking down the parts of the building that are decaying…. But before long the men are taking the timbers across London Bridge to Southwark, where the theatre will be rebuilt and become known as one of the world’s most famous theatres: the Globe.’
Although James Burbage owned the Theatre, he leased the ground on which it stood – and the lease was due to expire at the end of 1597. The ground landlord, Giles Allen, seems to have seen this as his chance to make both money – and a manoeuvre that would satisfy his disapproval of theatrical productions. He raised the price of the lease to a sky-high level – and when negotiations failed, planned to pull down the Theatre and sell the materials. But, Burbage had discovered a clause in the original lease which allowed him to dismantle his theatre – and so he gathered his acting troupe to undertake the task under cover of a winter’s night…
As Michael Rosen points out, they were taking an enormous risk ‘…because if it can be proved that they are stealing, they will all be hanged and their severed heads put on show.’ These were people dedicated to their business, their livelihood, their autonomy – actors who claimed the world of the imagination, placed it in a Thames-side swamp and watched it grow…
…And all these centuries later, in 2013, on a sizzling Sunday at the beginning of July’s heat wave, it felt as if Burbage and Co. had been moving their theatre again – and had somehow cunningly contrived to set it up inside our local cinema…
Shakespeare’s Globe On Screen was like honey to a bee for my daughter and me. A strong enough lure for us to forsake one of the earliest sun-drenched afternoons of the summer, to sit in a darkened room – and happily travel to Illyria via the Globe’s 2012 production of Twelfth Night, directed by Tim Carroll.
Described as an ‘Original Practices production, exploring clothing, music, dance and settings possible in the Globe of around 1601,’ it was the first full all-male cast production of Shakespeare either of us had seen – and this experience, in itself, was like a direct, electric hook-up to the original presentations of his work. It highlighted all the more the complexities and emotional scope of all that cross dressing and gender disguise; the instances of a man falling in love with a woman disguised as a man, played by a man. And of a woman, played by a man, falling in love with a woman disguised as a man, played by a man. Situations that roll out like a series of magic carpets; layered with all the opportunities for both the fun and serious exploration of assumed and more latent aspects of sexuality and identity.
Mark Rylance was wonderful as Olivia – gliding demurely across the stage; stately, black-clad and – after her meeting with Cesario/ Viola – set simmering beneath corseted consonants, like verse ready to break free from the confines of its form.
Johnny Flynn as Viola/ Cesario was all at once innocent, knowing, bold, perplexed and heart-sore, lost in love. I was totally able to believe in the girl beneath the boy – even though the girl beneath the boy was – a man! The illusion and magic of the theatre – and Shakespeare’s manipulation of the power of the imagination – was brought to a pitch that fully referenced the play’s own relationship to the contemporary tools of its trade.
Paul Chahidi totally inhabited his role of Maria – catching every beat of comic timing (as well as glancing the darker undertones the audience’s way) on the delivery of each line, gesture and facial expression. He positively seethed as a woman biding the unleashing of her own powers.
Colin Hurley as Sir Toby Belch and Roger Lloyd Pack as Sir Andrew Aguecheek, were a double act made of that same cloth of comic timing and endearing humour – and of the casually draped darker and disturbing edges to their relationship, motivations and intentions. They were joined in this by my daughter’s favourite in the play – Peter Hamilton Dyer as Feste; wearing his part of Shakespearean Fool with that required demeanour of both familiar participant – and aloof, amoral onlooker; a kind of vessel for the looser, intangible, elusive, discordant, stranger aspects of the play’s atmosphere and pitch. In his wide eyes and melancholic, beautiful singing he underlined both the moral, philosophical questions, and the detachment of strings cut free from accountability.
Liam Brennan’s comic-petulant, earnest-shallow, affronted-romantic Orsino reminded me how every time I encounter his character I am worried by Viola’s choice – and see perfect sense in Olivia’s keeping her distance. The man is in love with love – and adrift in his own illusions. And, as this production suggests, perhaps he desires Cesario more than he desires Viola… But, of course (and as the play constantly reminds us) sexual attraction tends, for those involved, to lead to a complete bypassing of analytical scrutiny – and lights a mysterious touch paper that often burns out of kilter with surface awareness.
The comedy of the play was beautifully played by all – with both control and wonderful exuberance – and Stephen Fry came into his own as Malvolio. He wore the role with convincing comfort, and his both comic and hugely touching delivery of the scene in which he finds Olivia’s supposed letter, inspired an eruption of spontaneous applause from the onscreen audience – and heartfelt inner applause from us in the cinema. Fry’s portrayal of Malvolio’s very deep delight at the discovery that he is loved (‘I am happy!’) cut through the character’s pomposity, and formed a connection of heart-strung sympathy from the audience. And so, the most was made of Shakespeare’s revelation of the human beneath the character, intensifying the unease we feel in accepting any complicity in Sir Toby’s, Sir Andrew’s and Maria’s cruel schemes – though, the full impact of this unease did not come through until the end; reserved for then, and held back by the sheer force and beguilement of the comedy. We, as audience, are suddenly brought up short by our complicity – but, in this presentation of the play, not for too long. This was a production that emphasised the life-affirming pull of comedy – the subversive festivities of a Twelfth Night – and allowed the audience to run with it, to have our ‘cakes and ale,’ rather than tug us back with overly hard overtones of judgement. The unease and the darkness leave an aftertaste to mull over later…
And so, Theatre lives, breathes and finds its place, despite the ‘puritan’ negations of a Malvolio, or the likes of a theatre-demolishing Giles Allen. And, true to the traditions of Twelfth Night – the Feast of Fools – everything has been turned upside down. Through shadows and through light, through ‘the wind and the rain’ we have been led in a complex dance by the Lord of Misrule.
‘it raineth every day’ – and Life’s festive and mournful sides both have their need, their time – and their responsibilities.
‘…what is yours to bestow is not yours to reserve’ says Viola to Olivia.
‘Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?’ Sir Toby asks Malvolio.
‘What is love?’ Feste asks us…
Questions that, when we truly engage with them, can dismantle us – or at least challenge and dismantle our preconceptions – and can rebuild and rearrange and renew…
The experience of seeing a full Globe Theatre production at the cinema was definitely the next best thing to being there. The big screen brought us close to the actors and the action; the audience present at the recording seemed to draw us in as one of its own – and the vitality of sixteenth/seventeenth century music, colour, dance and spectacle typical of a Globe production, placed us under the magical illusion of actually being there. There was even a fifteen minute interval between Acts – for ice creams and loo breaks – just as if we were at the theatre.
My daughter and I relished the experience – and were both feeling on a “theatre-high” all evening afterwards. We’re now looking forward to seeing The Taming of the Shrew this month, when the Burbage brothers and Co. get up to their metaphorical dismantling tricks again – and move Shakespeare’s Globe back to our local cinema once more…
You can find details of the productions and check out cinema venues and times at the Shakespeare’s Globe On Screen website.
All the Globe 2012 season of plays – Twelfth Night, Henry V and The Taming of the Shrew will be available on DVD from the autumn.
Here’s a clip from Twelfth Night (Act II, Scene 2) with Stephen Fry as Malvolio and Johnny Flynn as Viola/ Cesario: