Friday, April 25, 2014

London’s Globe Theater and Shakespeare's 450th birthday

LONDONApril 25, 2014 — Earlier this week the theatrical world celebrated the 450th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s birth. And what better venue to view Elizabethan drama the way it was once performed than at the Globe Theater in London

For more than half of his life Sam Wanamaker’s passion was to rebuild Shakespeare’s Globe. Today the thatched roof building enjoys its seventeenth season, and this London stage recreates theater  almost as it was four and a half centuries ago.

Shakespeare’s Globe thrives in downtown London thanks to Wanamaker’s relentless dedication. As a functioning reconstruction of an Elizabethan playhouse in the Borough of Southwark, the Globe is a tribute to William Shakespeare’s contributions to the theater, to literature and to preserving the beauty of the English language.

The modern day Globe, built in 1997, is an open-air theater built about 750 feet from the original site. It has a threefold purpose; an interactive museum, a source for literary education and research, and a functioning playhouse with performances from May to October.

It was impossible to build the contemporary version of the Globe to exact specifications due to modern-day fire codes and other restrictions. Beyond those limitations however, the contemporary  reconstruction is an academic approximation based upon available evidence from both the 1599 and 1614 buildings.
Every effort was made to recreate the playhouse atmosphere that existed during Shakespeare’s time. Plays are open-air performances conducted during daylight hours and in the evenings.

Just as it was in the 17th century, a thrust stage projects into a large circular yard where “groundling” can stand during performances. The only covered portions of the venue are the stage and the three tiers of raked seating. Perhaps most amazing is the fact that Shakespeare’s Globe is today the first and only thatched roof building in the city of London since the year 1666.

Stage techniques and sound effects are created just as they were nearly 500 years ago. Actors use no microphones. There are no speakers, amplification or spotlights. Music is performed live using period instruments. For sound effects, traditional techniques of the day are used, such as rolling a heavy iron ball down a ramp backstage to create thunder.

Capacity is slightly more than 850 in the seating areas plus 700 more in the pit for the groundlings, making the audience size approximately half of the typical patronage in Shakespeare’s time.

Constructed of English oak using mortise and tenon joints, the Globe incorporates authentic 17th century architecture. No structural steel was used in the design. Even the seats are nothing more than simple benches, though cushions can be rented during performances.

This incarnation of the Globe became the dream of American actor Sam Wanamaker when he traveled to London for the first time in 1949. Wanamaker visited the site where Shakespeare’s Globe once stood on the banks of the River Thames.

Dismayed when he discovered that all that signified the importance of the location where so much literary and theatrical history had taken place was a dingy marker at an abandoned brewery, Wanamaker set about his project of rebuilding the Globe.

Despite nearly insurmountable objections by local government due to fears of fire and a steady paradeof visitors and tourists, Wanamaker persevered and finally purchased the building along with the necessary permissions. Wanamaker established the Shakespeare Globe Trust to rebuild the theater as close to the original site, and as historically accurate, as possible.  The dream became an obsession that would challenge Wanamaker for the rest of his life.

In 1997 the new Globe Theater opened  to the public with a production of Shakespeare’s Henry V. Wanamaker never witnessed the results of his dream. He died of prostate cancer in 1993, but his creation lives on for future generations to learn, study and celebrate the Bard some 450 years after his birth.

Surely Wanamaker’s “Much Ado About Something” would have Mr. Shakespeare enjoying the theater today just “As He Liked It” in the 16th century.