Tuesday, March 25, 2014

This Wooden 'O' (book)

If there is one overriding theme in Barry Day’s This Wooden ‘O’, one which is made early and repeated ad nauseum, it is that not only did it take an American to build a fully-functioning Elizabethan Globe theater on old Bankside, but that only an American wanted to.

It is true that other replica “Globes” already existed prior to Shakespeare’s Globe, all over the world, even as far away as Japan, but to put one right there, in that place, was anathema to post-war British thinking. Valuable river-side property was to be used for offices, factories or public housing. End stop.

Besides, as described by the author, and easily understood if you think about it, it was a dumb idea and one which never should have worked. The first time I visited Southwark was in 1990, as a student.

A troop of us were taking a whirlwind, seven-day tour of London and Stratford. We took a walking tour of Surrey at an important period of transition in the project. The place looked a great deal as it did for Sam Wanamaker when he first skulked bankside and found the legendary, blackened plaque-on-the-side-of-a-brewery, that which was the sole indication that the playhouse for which Shakespeare wrote his plays had, at one time been … around here ... somewhere.

We saw the exact same plaque. But we also saw the construction area where they had recently discovered the remains of the Globe’s main competitor (for three years, anyway) Henslowe’s Rose Theatre.

Tearing down one factory in order to construct a new office block, they had expected to find evidence of the The Rose, but not with its foundations so well-preserved. The decision was yet to be made, in December 1990, as to what the fate of The Rose would be.

Meanwhile, the Globe was as yet a great muddy pit. We stared into the hole, and it stared back. Perhaps Wanamaker, who had not yet received the diagnoses of prostate cancer from which he would die in less than three years, stared at us through the windows of the nearby Shakespeare's Globe Trust, but that’s ridiculous.

The question, even then, as recounted by our tour guide, was why build this theater? They have so many great commercial theaters in the West End, new drama created for the Royal Court among so many others, and the National Theatre for the classics. What on earth would a replica Elizabethan theater provide? What if the work is just, you know, Shakespeare? You can get that absolutely anywhere in the world.

My next visit was on June 12, 1997 with my (then) girlfriend Toni. What we did not realize was that ours was the final tour through the completed Shakespeare’s Globe on the afternoon of the Royal Grand Opening. Seriously.

They had had a workshop season in the space the summer of 1995, and another in 1996. For two summers artistic director Mark Rylance and his company had been working the space, when the stage was still plywood, and the pit for the groundlings unfinished, testing the space for best use. How far apart should the posts supporting the stage be, how far from the edge of the stage? Are the doors to the tiring house working? There was time to correct these things, and best to do it prior to the office commencement of this new theater.

We received our tour, it all looked really good, but I never got to see a show there that summer. We were scheduled to leave in another two days and all the opening weekend performances were sold. After our tour we had tea in the adjacent restaurant, and as we relaxed the place began to fill with very important people in tuxedos and dresses.

Jesus, is that Michael Maloney? I stared at him for a moment as he talked to someone and he did a double-take at me, staring, and I looked away. Yeah, that was Michael Maloney. Later I saw him head into the loo and thought of cornering him to apologize but then I thought, wow, right, that would make the world such a better place, and didn’t do that.

If we had stayed any longer we would have been chased out, the Queen was coming. Seriously.

Visiting the theater, as built, made me want to experience a show there in a way that it had not when it was merely a theory or a dream. That opportunity did not come until 2001, and even then it was to see one of the few non-period productions from Rylance’s first few years, the much-maligned fancy dress party Macbeth.

This was actually an excellently performed production, featuring Eve Best as the best Lady M. I have ever seen. It was a thoughtful, cerebral production, performed entirely in tuxedoes, except for Ms. Best.
“The real horror is that this production has been allowed to reach the public in this state.The real horror is that this production has been allowed to reach the public in this state.” - The Guardian
The script was cut in a truly magnificent way, and did, in fact, highlight the special advantages of the Globe stage. One example I love to give when working with the residency actors, is how Act IV was collapsed into one scene, cutting back and forth between the Weird Sisters' apparitions, the murder of Macduff's family, and the scene between Malcolm and Macdfuff where he learns of their fate.

All three scenes climax, one after the other, making what would otherwise seem drawn out and obvious into a highly immediate event.

 There is a story here. I can't remember what it is.

My brother served as a steward at Shakespeare’s Globe for a time, what we might call a “Red Coat”. As such, he was able to get us into one of the less-offered Heaven and Hell tours of the Globe when we returned in 2006. As might be guessed, the “heavens” is the house above the stage, and Hell below. We also got to experience everything inbetween, including standing on the stage, which was a new, exciting experience.

By this time, Rylance had stepped down from his directorship, leaving it in the hands of the more traditional Dominic Dromgoole. Rylance raised a few eyebrows when he announced he was uncertain as to whether the “Stratford Man’ had in fact written the plays, Dromgoole stomped those eyebrows right down again, a committed Stratford champion.

Kelly and I attended The Merchant of Venice on 2007. You can read my thoughts here. In brief it was well-done, enjoyable … except I was troubled by the amount of “set” which had been added, including a platform set into the groundlings area, accessible from a short bridge, evocative of the canals of Venice. There was a great deal of set dressing, around the columns, the front of the tiring house, which I found distracting and not very pleasant to look at.

My brother has described to me the truly remarkable works presented at the Globe in its brief history, I am sorry not to have ever seen Rylance perform there, or any of the works he has directed - not even in New York, where he recently remounted his all-male productions of Twelfth Night, the hallmark of his career at the Globe.

Regardless, even with the mere two productions I have seen performed there, it was evident the unique relationship Shakespeare's words have with his stage, illuminating them in a manner which is challenging on a proscenium stage, and producing them with a greater accessibility to and relationship with the audience.

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