Guided tour of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre From Globe Theatre Bankside
The modern Globe Theatre was the brainchild of the American film actor and director, Sam Wanamaker, who came over to London and wondered why we did’t have any attractions devoted to Shakespeare.
It’s a perfect reconstruction of the Elizabethan playhouse that originally stood 330 yards away, underneath the modern-day Anchor Terrace near Southwark Bridge Road.
The original Globe Theatre began when a theatre group called the Lord Chamberlain’s Men started receiving complaints from their local residents on the outskirts of London. So they dismantled their theatre and transported it brick-for-brick to Bankside.
Understandably, the theatre’s owner wasn’t very happy when he saw his playhouse disappear in front of his very eyes, and he sued the troupe in court. Amazingly, the judge sided with the actors and allowed the ‘New Globe’ to open in 1598.
The theatre only lasted another fifteen years, when someone had the bright idea of shooting a cannon from the roof as a sound effect during Henry VIII. A stray spark landed in the theatre’s thatched roof, set it on fire, and burned the theatre to the ground.
It was then re-built and re-opened with a tiled roof in 1614, but this was demolished by the Puritans in 1642.
325 years later Sam Wanamaker began campaigning and fundraising for a belated replacement, and thanks to his vision the first brick was laid in 1987.
It was constructed as closely as possible to match the original Elizabethan design. Contemporary pictures of the original theatre are few and far between, but an archaeological excavation of its foundations provided some proof of the dimensions.
The builders constructed the theatre using unseasoned oak and 6,000 pegs, and topped it off with a 17th century-style thatched roof. This roof is a particular treasure, because it’s the first thatched roof allowed in the capital since the Great Fire of London.
It was finally opened in 1997, four years after Wanamaker passed away.
William Shakespeare’s career was already well underway when he started performing at the Globe.
He was actually born in Stratford-upon-Avon and came to London later. It is believed that he worked at the Globe between 1599 and 1611, and it was where he premiered works many great plays like Othello, Macbeth and Henry V.
Watching a play at the Globe Theatre is like going back in time. You will be experiencing the play exactly as they did back in Elizabethan times.
The theatre is partly open to the weather (as was the original) and there is a large standing area at the base of the stage for the so-called ‘groundlings’. The three balcony rows around the sides are called the Twopenny Rooms (rows one and two) and Penny Gallery (top row).
The original theatre was surprisingly advanced for its time, utilising trap doors and sound effects. The stage even contained two hand-wound lifts so the actors could rise up from the ‘cellarage’. The two huge posts at either side hold up a roof painted with sky scenes and stars. And this roof, called the ‘heavens’, also contained a hidden flap-door through which actors could descend on ropes and fly through the sky!
To keep everything as authentic as possible the modern-day plays are almost always staged in the afternoon, so there’s no need for artificial lights or microphones – but with an open-air roof London’s wet and windy weather frequently intervenes. If it catches you out then don’t worry… just content yourself that you’re experiencing it exactly as the Elizabethans did!
This review originally appeared in his London blog
The Globe Theatre is open air so they only show plays during the summer months, but it’s well worth going in the winter because you can have a guided tour of the inside. Our guide was called Mel and she could talk for England at the Olympics I reckon, non-stop natter natter. It was a forty-five minutes of detailed history about Southwark and Bankside, the original theatre and William Shakespeare himself. After that you get led into a little exhibition at the end. But here’s a little bit about the tour…
She begins her talk outside by the river in the freezing wind, and she tells you all about Southwark and what a hell-hole it was in Shakespeare’s day. You get stories about the bear-baiting, the friendly ladies (if you know what I mean), the gambling, the drinking… it sounded like quite a fun place. Then she tells you about the local nick (where Clink Prison is today), and the heads stuck up on spikes by London Bridge. And this is all before she says a word about Shakespeare.
Then she leads you inside the theatre for your first look at the stage. Because it was during the close season when I went they still had a lot of scaffolding up to repaint the decorations, which was a bit annoying, but you could still see get a good idea of how it must be during a play. She sits everyone down in one of the balcony seats and then does fifteen minutes about what it’s like to watch a play. There is a pit in the middle where 700 hundred cheap people stand, and then three balconies of seats that go all the way around the outside. The seats are all wooden pews like you get in church, so they’re not the most comfortable of things to sit on, but at least you can buy a cushion for a couple of quid.
The Globe Theatre is surprisingly small inside. There was another tour guide sitting on the opposite side of the theate as our one talked, and we could clearly hear their guide talking as well – so I imagine that you can hear the actors perfectly.
The stage is quite ornate with marbleised wood columns and an elaborate balcony (just perfect for the Romeo scene). She explains in great detail how the ’groundlings’, standing in the pit below, become part of the plot. The actors actually address their lines to the crowd – just like they’re are a real Roman army or English mob. She also explained that the players sometimes interact with the crowd itself, and enter the stage from the back. Can you remember that ghost that pops up all over the place during Macbeth? She explained that he pops up in the balconies, too, bellowing his lines across the punter’s heads.
I think I’m definitely going to see a play next summer, just to see what it’s like (read my review). But remember to go on a sunny day, because the whole thing is open to the sky and they don’t stop for rain. Umbrellas are banned!
After you’ve seen the theatre she leads you straight back to the shop and bids you farewell, and that’s the end of the tour. You are then allowed to wander around the Shakespeare museum and exhibition downstairs, which was also quite good. They’ve got a lot of objects on show from Shakespeare’s day, and covers everything from Christopher Marlowe to Elizabeth I. They’ve got a lot of little models of the Globe Theatre and the Rose Theatre as well, showing you how the originals looked, and a big scene of Southwark and the Frost Fair on the Thames.
Right at the end of the exhibition is a collection of costumes and props, and a mock-up of a Tudor kitchen. Then they tell you a bit about the modern-day reconstruction, and how they built the theatre using authentic Tudor techniques. It sounds quite dry on paper, but it was actually quite interesting.
> Read Craig’s latest review of a Globe Theatre tour “I consider myself to be reasonably well educated. I’m not quite on the Albert Einstein level, but put it this way: I went to school. I’m not thick. I can do all the usual stuff: I can tie my shoelaces, I can count to ten, I can say “please can I have a ham sandwich” in French… and that’s pretty much all you need to know in life. So here’s my take on Shakespeare: I don’t mind reading about him, and his Tudor times, but Shakespeare’s plays are too much like hard work. I actually tried to read them all once. I think I did the four biggies plus a couple of others, but then I just gave up because it was like trying to decipher pig Latin… continued.”
> Read Craig’s review of watching a play at the Globe “I’m sitting in the Globe Theatre waiting for Julius Caesar to start. The place is packed out and all we are doing is watch them assemble the set. The stage is very close to the seats and rises up three stories. It’s got three floors of balconied seats wrapped around the whole thing in a circle, and I am sitting in the middle level. The seats aren’t exactly the comfiest chairs in town… they remind me of church pews when I was a kid, and they don’t have any backs either (unless you sit at the back… which will ruin your view). But you can purchase a plush red cushion for a quid if you want – I definitely recommend it… continued.”
> Read Craig’s review of Stratford-upon-Avon “The first thing that you need to know about Stratford-upon-Avon is that it’s a totally different place to Stratford. If you catch the tube to Stratford then you’ll end up by the old Olympic Village in east London. But the Stratford-upon-Avon that we’re talking about is 100 miles away and two hours on the train – a slight difference! The only reason that you’d want to spend a whole day here is if you’re the world’s biggest William Shakespeare fan. That is literally the only reason (you can trust me on this). Stratford is where Shakespeare was born, so they’ve got his old house, a couple of exhibitions and a theatre… continued.”
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If you enjoy the Globe Theatre Tour then how about watching a Shakespeare play? How about a day-trip to Stratford-upon-Avon to see where Shakespeare was born and buried? You might also like to go and see his monument in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey, or some of his manuscripts at the British Library. Try our guide to William Shakespeare events in London, for plenty more theatre shows and exhibitions.
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