Thursday, 20 January 2011

The Globe Theatre: The stage is all the world

The original Globe Theatre burnt to the ground in two hours in 1639 during a production of Henry VIII, when a spark from a real cannon caught the thatched roof. It was director Sam Wannamaker’s idea to recreate the theatre and he used a number of influential patrons and innovative initiatives (36,000 red bricks at a cost of £5 each were sold as fundraisers) to realise his dream.

The theatre is built to be as an exact replica as possible, based on written and visual sources (which also inform our knowledge of the behaviour and activities of theatregoers). The twenty-sided building is made out of 1,000 oak trees, held together with wooden pegs. The pillars on stage are also oak, painted to look like fake marble, and the thatched roof is the first in London since the Great Fire (thatched roofs were banned in 1666).

External gates feature 125 flora and fauna from Shakespeare’s plays while affording great glimpses of modern and ancient London. By rights the floor should be crushed hazelnut shells, cinder and ash to complete the authenticity, but this would be too uncomfortable. You can, however, still purchase food, wine and cushions to enhance your appreciation of the play.

The courtyard is open to the elements so punters will get wet or sunstroke depending on the weather (I saw a standing audience member faint from the heat, but that probably wasn’t too typical for London). The groundlings can still stand for £5, which is an amazing bargain. The stage is so close to the audience that the actors can see individual faces (there is minimal lighting used in keeping with the original atmosphere), which can be quite daunting to some. Four doors on the lower level facilitate entrances and exits, and the actors often walk among the crowds.

3,000 people used to pack into the theatre, although concerns for modern health and safety legislation (not to mention personal space) now stipulate that it holds a maximum of 1,500. No microphones are used either, although there are live musicians – the shape of the building provides excellent acoustics. While the shape of the stage can change for an individual production (using walkways, thrusts and a central platform), wall hangings are preferred to a fixed set – the setting is in the text; it is up to the audience to listen and use their imagination.

Theatrical convention meant that Heaven was above and Hell below (a trapdoor enables actors to descend and emerge) and the stage itself is meant to represent Earth. The tiring house behind the stage wall is the area where the actors got dressed (or put on their attire); the boxes were gentlemen’s rooms; the musicians’ galleries were immediately above the stage (and still are); whereas other galleries here were the Lord’s rooms – they could hear but not see the action, although they were mainly designed for them to show off their finery. Fifteen plays were written specifically to be performed at The Globe, with all its trappings and theatrical devices in mind.

The Globe had to be outside the city walls to conform to the laws of the Puritans. The locale was full of playhouses, brothels, taverns, bear-baiting, cockfighting, pleasure gardens, prisons, and inns, creating an interesting mix of culture, art, vice and dissipation. Shakespeare used many of these types, to populate his plays with credible characters. London Bridge was the only bridge across the Thames (which was three times as wide) in those days. To signal to theatregoers that a show was imminent, a flag would be raised that could be seen from the other side of the river. The performances began at 2pm and lasted for two hours with no interval; they spoke faster then as the audience were used to the style of speech.

Now actors at the Globe are contracted for 3-6 months. At least four Shakespeare plays are produced per season and new writing is welcomed. This is the ultimate venue for seeing a traditional Shakespeare play and getting a feel for the bard as he would have been performed. Alternative twists are also introduced; plays would have been all-male productions so it is no surprise that recent performances have included men-only versions of Antony and Cleopatra and Twelfth Night, although the all-female performance of Richard III would have been interesting!

Monday, 17 January 2011

Be Merry, My Friends, Be Merry

The Merry Wives of Windsor
Shakespeare's Globe Theatre
August - October 2010

The Merry Wives of Windsor rounds out the trio of ‘Falstaff plays’. Whether or not it is true that Queen Elizabeth I commissioned the play because she wanted to see ‘the fat knight in love’ is a moot point (not least because he never is actually in love, apart from with himself and his own advancement) but the tone is certainly lighter than the previous two parts of Henry IV.

It may best be described as a mixture between an early rom-com and a blatant farce, with a main plot and another couple of subplots both hindering and enhancing the action. Running out of money, Sir John Falstaff (Christopher Benjamin) attempts to win the affection of a wealthy mistress and sends identical letters to Mistress Ford (Sarah Woodward) and Mistress Page (Serena Evans) with the intention of seducing them into bed and out of their fortunes. When they discover his plan they easily outwit him, pretending to go along with his adulterous intentions only for him to be ‘discovered’ unless he escapes in humiliating ways (hidden in a laundry basket and subsequently dumped in The Thames or disguised as the witch of Brentford who is soundly beaten by her enemies).

Page and Ford react very differently to the news that someone is trying to court their wife. Page (Michael Garner) is trusting enough to dismiss the rumours, while Ford (Andrew Havill) works himself into a jealous rage, with moments of impotent anger taken straight from the Basil Fawlty acting book. Added to this is the delectable and dimpled Anne Page (Ceri-Lyn Cissone) with a couple of unsuitable suitors (Slender and Doctor Caius) and one true love (Fenton). Slender (William Belchambers) is delightfully effeminate and her father’s choice; Dr Caius (Philip Bird) is outrageously French and her mother’s choice; Fenton (Gerard McCarthy) is charming, handsome and the obvious choice; and Mistress Quickly (Sue Wallace) is the meddling wench who tries to ‘help’ them all.

Falstaff thinks he is irresistible to women despite the fact that he is grotesquely overweight and old – somehow Benjamin’s embodiment of this and his descriptions of his humiliations make him warm and loveable rather than arrogant and offensive. He is also somewhat diminished by Mistresses Ford and Page who prove to be more than a match for him. Woodward and Evans are both excellent in their distinction between acting and overacting when they are ‘caught out’ in the presence of the would-be Lothario. Their girlish scheming is a joy to watch and their daring antics could teach those whey-faced desperate housewives a thing or two.

This is a brilliant play for sharing with the audience; we are in on the joke as in the best cases of farce and dramatic irony. The stage (design by Janet Bird) is set with a walkway through the crowd which turns into a forest where Falstaff faces his final persecution, or an attractive suburban garden complete with picket fence and love seat – audience members must dodge to avoid a soaking from the watering can. Sue Wallace sits boldly on the steps and chats with the theatregoers which reminds me I know her as Auntie Pam from Coronation Street.

Physical comedy is to the fore and there are guffaws rather than titters, although the double entendres cause a few giggles. Much has been made of the fact that this play was almost written for television a good three hundred years before that device was invented. It is big and bold and very beautiful with Tudor costumes and themes – no attempt has been made to place it in another context which only adds to its strength. The music underpins the entire production as the musicians perform their curious instruments on stage, adding comic value, heightening the melodrama or providing a sweet accompaniment to the duet between Anne Page and Fenton – bless their hearts.

It’s not subtle or deep – it doesn’t explore the human condition – but it doesn’t pretend to. It intends to entertain and in this it certainly achieves its intention. It’s easy to follow, the themes are familiar and you don’t have to think too much. This is Shakespeare for beginners, performed and directed by consummate professionals.