“Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon ‘em,” Twelfth Night’s Malvolio proclaims as he struts across the stage, cross-gartered in canary yellow-tights, to the laughter of a packed theatre, basking in the mellow, English midday sun. An ebony giant in a gold lamé dress and a towering Diana Ross wig strikes up a full-throated song in the deepest baritone from the balcony overhead. Our attention skitters upwards. Up over the strong timber pillars holding up the sweep of this Jacobean theatre’s embellished galleries. Up past the pagoda-like peaked roof arching over the stage to the open azure skies, where a helicopter hovers watchfully. As if waiting its turn, with a flock of pigeons, to swoop down on stage to join in the horseplay of Maria and Sir Toby.
“Why, this is very midsummer madness!” Olivia declares then, and we in the audience wholeheartedly agree. Yet, it is the best kind of madness; full of sunshine, song and the confluence of communities—Londoners, tourists, lovers, friends and families—and art of the highest order, bridging time and culture. But not place. No links are required to bring the original stage for Shakespeare’s plays together with the floorboards the performers are treading on now. Because we are at the Globe Theatre, besides the Thames in London, where the only bridges required are to cross the shimmering river. Everything else—the bustle, ballyhoo and bonhomie—are eternal and universal, needing no translation.
The open-air theatre’s pits and balconies teeming with tourists and theatre-lovers, recreate the magic of a bygone era. Photo by: Oli Scarff/Staff/Getty Images
We are in Bankside, once dotted with ale houses, brothels and music halls, and now heaving with fashionable cafés, on-trend galleries and busy contemporary theatres. Yet, there’s nothing quite like this reconstruction of the original Elizabethan playhouse where Shakespeare’s finest had been staged from 1599 until it was destroyed in an inferno from the firing of a stage cannon in 1613—“all in less than two hours.” This was where the Bard, in his prime, entertained nobility and everyday folk alike. Where the Elizabethan thespian Richard Burbage declaimed and the androgynous Alexander Cooke warbled nightingale-like to the wonder of the packed rafters. Where the constituents of those rafters and crammed pit cried, chortled, sang along, and occasionally passed out because of their pre-theatre excesses in the steaming riverbank lanes.
We make a very similar set of spectators in 2017, except for the passing out. By the time American director Sam Wanamaker realised his decades-long dream of rebuilding the legendary Globe Theatre in 1997, the south bank of the Thames had evolved into a more urbane place. The ale houses have morphed into upmarket wine bars and the brothels moved to seamier neighbourhoods. But our reactions to the unfolding story on stage is much the same; we laugh or get teary-eyed at the same moments as those who watched it 400 years before us. We are still a seriously motley lot—a fun-loving, drama-devouring crowd, made up as much of the great and good of London as ‘rabble’ from around the world.
The theatre itself is a faithful copy of the original, if more fire-resistant than before. Built using traditional techniques, with authentic green oak, coated in white limewash, and covered with a water-reed thatch roof, this new Globe’s carved and colourful columns, balconies and closely-packed wooden benches recreate a more vivid and carefree era. In front of the stage, at the centre, is the customary standing room for hardier, more impecunious souls.
Today, as in the past, the performers often mingle with the crowd, bringing the story to its spectators. The musicians in the balcony are also where they would have been in Tudor times. But they are mixing the madrigals with modern hits, and the situations and costumes too have been cleverly updated without losing any of their original power or charm.
The theatre has a thatched roof and pristinely white facade. Photo by: Education Images/Contributor/Getty Images
The Globe now offers more than just the plays, though. An exhibition takes you back to the Shakespearean age, and there are guided tours of both the building and its bustling surrounds. Constantly on are also collaborative projects with schools, theatrical scholars and international theatre troupes. There is a stylish restaurant you have to queue up to get into, and the ubiquitous gift shop is so full of Shakespearean wonders that it can hold you in thrall for a good while. The place is packed and in a celebratory mood because it is, after all, this thumping good theatre’s 20th anniversary.
With a million or more enthusiasts streaming through its doors annually, the Globe has fulfilled its promise to recapture the verve of Shakespeare’s era while presenting cutting-edge theatre to the world. But its greatest contribution to our times is the bridges it has built all over again: Between London and the rest of the theatre-loving world, between high art and ordinary folks, and between great entertainment now and then.
This beautiful, rounded open-air theatre, in creating links between communities and creative endeavour, glows like an orb of hope in a world where people have lost touch with each other and the best of the past. It shines like Shakespeare’s work itself.
“So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.”
Check www.shakespearesglobe.com for schedule and ticket prices of upcoming plays and upcoming tours of the Globe. A separate 40-minute tour of the Bankside, London’s notorious entertainment district is also available.
is a columnist and illustrator for the British and Indian media. Her short stories have been published in three continents and her HarperCollins India book, 'Memoirs of My Body' is out now.
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