You buy your ticket and enter The Globe. It’s a startling theatre space. Straight off, you’re not given a seat – you stand to watch the play, literally up to your neck in the stage. Look up, and you’ll notice it’s open-air, outdoor and in broad daylight. Three trumpets pulsate the play into life. Twisting fast round twin pillars, the actors are within touching distance, making eye contact, provoking you – ‘Who calls me villain?’
Seeing a play here today is perhaps as striking as seeing it four centuries ago, still fresh from its openings in 1599 and 1997. How does The Globe perform its role of entertaining and enthralling its audience? A potent mix of theatricality, versatility, violence, interactivity, outreach, adventure and irreverence make The Globe unique.
Theatricality: all the world’s a stage
Above its entrance, you see its motto: ‘Totet mundus agit histrionem’ – ‘All the world’s a stage’. Uniquely amongst theatres, The Globe ties its colours to the mast of theatricality. In this world, those who improvise are the most exciting characters to watch: Hamlet, Prospero, Falstaff, Mercutio. Those who orchestrate evil often stage-manage plots-within-plays: Richard III, Edmund, Iago. Those who cross-dress are playing roles-upon-roles: Portia, Viola and Rosalind would have been boy-actors playing girls acting as boys. Those who disguise themselves, such as Edgar, Henry V, and Angelo, are commoners playing monarchs acting as commoners. Chaotic characters unlock discoveries in the story through their chaos: think Bottom, Caliban and Dogberry. The pulse of the play is in its playfulness.
Versatility: this our scene
On its unusually empty stage, versatility is the name of the game. The plays transport you into a vast variety of spaces and times. You spin through ancient pagan Britain, Verona at civil war, turbulent Lancaster and York’s War of The Roses, merchant Venice, Turkish-occupied Cyprus, Norwegian-invaded Denmark, and regicidal Scotland, all the way to the Forest of Ardennes, the Dukedom of Naples, the island of Sicily, an embryonic Athenian democracy, and the republican Roman empire. The past plays out as your imaginative landscape for the present: ‘how many times will this our scene be acted over in states unborn and accents yet unknown?’ William Shakespeare placed the Latin words of a first-century BC Roman on a seventeenth-century London stage in English; that his words still play in Japanese at Tokyo’s Globe Theatre in the twenty-first century, seems prophetic.
Violence: or else were this a savage spectacle…
The thrust platform reminds you of an execution scaffold, and violence enacts many of the most powerful visual scenes at The Globe. In Othello, we witness suffocation and a suicide. Macbeth displays a decapitated tyrant’s head to its onlookers. In King Lear, we see an old man tortured and his eyes gouged out; blinded, he later tries to throw himself off a cliff. Julius Caesar enacts assassination and martial suicide, when the conspirators fall on their swords. The fencing match in Hamlet kills a King with his nephew’s sword, while the Prince and the Queen die of the King’s poison. The spectacle of death always attracted spectators. Perhaps the plays could only enthral insofar as they could appal? Cruelty was good box office.
Interactivity: the original instrument
Looking around, you’re in a spherical amphitheatre, ‘in the round’, encircled in 360 degree surround-sound, radically interactive. The Globe today sees itself as a laboratory to experiment and rediscover how Shakespeare’s theatre worked. The modern Globe’s first Artistic Director, Mark Rylance explains:
“In my mind, it’s a bit like someone discovering the original cello, and saying, ‘He wrote for this instrument, not for the modern one we’re using. Who will take up the challenge to try and play on his instrument?’
The building seems to inspire a wild spirit in the audience. Its crude, chaotic energy is visceral, and it becomes paramount to say to the actors, ‘don’t speak to them, play with them’. Anything they do is like another player on stage doing something.”
As a spectator, you experience how it animates the audience as army on the battlefield, mobilises you as mob in the city, and exploits your ability to play many different roles, from best friend to stern parent. It invites you into the limelight to become the most versatile actor.
Outreach: lively action
Bankside of the River Thames, based near areas of deprivation, The Globe roots itself in the local Southwark community, stealing the stage as an educational force for social change. It gives 14,000 free tickets to performances, 2,000 pupils from London schools receive free workshops, and 90,000 students visit the exhibition on site each year. On the website, which attracts 1 million virtual visitors a year, Globe Education’s Head of Learning, Fiona Banks, provocatively asks: ‘Why do young people feel culturally entitled to go to the cinema but only one in three feels that they can go to see a play?’ Through its practical school program, Lively Action, The Globe recasts Shakespeare from elite intellectual artist to popular working playwright.
Commerce: business venture
In asking you to pay for your ticket, The Globe recaptures the territory of the original Elizabethan playhouse. For the original was a business enterprise, a joint-stock company. Its profits were distributed among core actors who invested as shareholders, who shouldered the risk and who took a slice of the reward. Taking a percentage of the box office was unprecedented; Shakespeare was the most incentivised playwright in English literary history. The modern counterpart re-enacts this groundbreaking commercial venture. Unlike the state-funded National Theatre or crown-licensed Royal Shakespeare Company, The Globe receives no annual subsidy from government. Instead, it counts only on ticket sales. Much like its original: among the first permanent (rather than touring) playhouses, it relied on a repeat audience of thousands of Londoners willing to pay day-in, day-out to see performances. It required habitual playgoing: from 1599, 15,000 Londoners paid to see a play every week, and a third of the 200,000 population saw one a month. Shakespeare was writing for the most experienced playgoers in history. Today, London takes centre-stage as the world capital of theatre; you can’t walk through her streets without hearing about a play. The Globe, now as then, could depend on an unusually discriminating commercial audience.
Irreverence: these roarers…
Look up a last time, and you’re reminded the playhouse is open-air; it has started to rain. This uncovers how unpredictable and irreverent The Globe is. Open to the elements, it is egalitarian in asking its audience to ‘answer to the extremity of the skies’ with the provocation: ‘What cares these roarers for the name of King?’ Some of the most dramatic scenes played here pit King Lear against the storm and wreck a Duke’s ship in The Tempest. Weather is a great social leveller, and so is The Globe. Historically, it subjected nobles and courtiers along with tailors and tinkers to its unpredictability. Today, The Globe reconstructs this irreverence and enacts the part of embattled underdog. Its iconoclasm pits itself in a David and Goliath battle of wills against the RSC’s traditionalism. Its maverick spirit challenges more than it conforms to the heritage industry.
As you leave, you wonder: if The Globe was an actor on the London stage, what role would it play? It casts itself in the starring role of theatrical trailblazer. Would it be more like Puck or Prospero? Certainly, having stood you in the yard, The Globe always earned your standing ovation.