Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Theatre: King Lear live at the Globe

The exterior of the Globe theatre
(Note: Originally published in 2001)

Shakespeare is no stranger to a child brought up in independent India, steeped as we are in the bard’s work, quoting lines off-the-cuff at every suitable (or unsuitable) occasion, wandering through his complete works as if through familiar terrain.

All my life, I’ve wondered what it would be like to watch a Shakespeare play at the Globe. Then, out of the blue, during the 27th British Council Cambridge Seminar 2001, there we were watching King Lear one wet July afternoon at that superbly reconstructed venue.

I pinched myself, and a few of my 50 seminar companions from 34 countries, to find out if it was true. I’d always imagined the Globe as a fairly posh theatre, acoustically sound, audience-friendly and perfect for the performer.

That afternoon, I realised how far from the truth I was. The rain poured indiscriminately on everyone in the yard, including the Fool who provided choric comments, perched atop a pole.

Our wooden benches on the ground floor of the three-tired seating arrangement, with ornate balusters, lacked backrests, and hired cushions for a pound each made the three-hour-15-minute rite of theatre fractionally more comfortable.

For the Globe we visited, a reconstruction of the 1599 original, was a dream come true for an American actor named Sam Wanamaker. On a trip to London in 1949, he was disappointed when he couldn’t trace the theatre. The only evidence that it once existed was a blackened bronze plaque on the wall of a brewery. That’s when Wanamaker vowed to build a fitting memorial to the Bard  ~ a replica of the Globe. Tragically, Wanamaker died in 1993, two years before his dream was realised.

The actors and the audience

The original Globe stood in the bustling commercial suburb of Southwark, on the south bank of Thames. When Shakespeare arrived in London from Stratford-upon-Avon in the 1580s, animal baiting was the most popular form of entertainment, evident in the thriving bull and bear rings. After the first Globe burnt to the ground in 1613 A.D., when a piece of wadding fired from a stage cannon shot into the roof burning the theatre down, the second theatre was given a tiled roof, and leading players were offered shares in it. That’s how William Shakespeare became a one-eighth owner of the Globe.

What was his theatre like? In its Wanamaker avatar, inaugurated on February 3, 2000, it has twenty sides and a diameter of 100 feet. Looking across the river to St. Paul’s cathedral, its mortared yard has a second surface, a mixture of hazelnut shells, cinders, sand and silt, all freely available industrial waste in Elizabethan times. In the 1990s, after each timber was marked, jointed and shaped, the theatre was assembled bay by bay. Unlike the first Globe that could hold 3,000 spectators, today’s reincarnation holds half that number to conform to fire safety regulations.

The new Globe is the first building in London since 1666 A.D. to have thatched roofing, though its water reeds have been chemically treated to retard burning.

But let’s wander back to the play. As Cordelia was banished from his sight by the vain King Lear, as Goneril and Regan won his favours with sweet words only to reveal their true colours soon after, as life in all its fury strutted across the boards, it was impossible not to note of the all-oak stage.

As with the original, skilled painters laboured over it to splotch, stain, vein and burnish it until we look at an illusion of stone, marble and semi-precious gems.

Cushions for sale!

Watchers all, we strove to focus our attention on the stage. But that was hard to do with pillars that blocked our view, both between bays and on the stage. As we craned our necks to update ourselves on the outrages perpetrated on Lear loyalist Gloucester by his illegitimate son Edmund, our backs creaked with the strain.
That’s when an American woman in the row in front, who has been a volunteer steward at the Globe during an earlier season, offers us a tip: Why don’t you go down to the yard, where the groundlings used to be, and stretch your legs a little?

It helped to look up at the stage, at the larger-than-life actors who declaimed their lines with elan, and feel a few drops of rain patter on our heads. All around stood hundreds of people, most clad in cheap rainproof gear, on their feet for the duration of the show.

That’s when I realised that umbrellas are banned in the yard, and so are folding chairs or shooting sticks. Of course, today’s crowd of five-pound watchers included students and tourists. But it was easy to imagine the boisterous, red-faced stinkards of the bard’s time, who ate and drank their way through the performance, interrupted it at will, broke into brawls, and hissed or clapped at the action. Unlike today’s clean-scrubbed faces, the Elizabethan groundlings rarely washed either themselves or their clothes.

Looking up from the yard, we gasped at the heavens above the stage space, with its midnight blue ceiling divided into panels by gilded ribs, each decorated by stars, sun, moon and the circle of the zodiac.

An ornate gate with sculpted figures from Shakespeare's plays
Its cloud-covered trapdoor cloaks the opening through which gods and goddesses can enter the human plane. Mercury and Apollo, the gods of eloquence, stand at either end, while the bare-breasted muses of tragedy and comedy gaze down from the balcony. We realised that the yard gave us an entirely new perspective on theatre at the Globe.

Back home, reliving the Globe experience, recent scholarship shares an amazing discovery  ~ the stage of the first theatre faced 48 degrees east of north, so that it was in continual shadow around the year. Why? Perhaps it was to conserve the richly dyed fabrics of the actors costumes, says one theatre source.

No matter what the answer, today’s Globe is a fitting tribute to Shakespeare from our time.

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