LONDON — At Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, a few steps from the Thames, the biggest surprise to the millions of visitors is that you can actually attend plays there.
The Globe is a working theatre, presenting mostly Shakespeare, from spring to fall.
Why not winter? Because the current Globe, like the two versions on which its design is based, is an outdoor theatre. No matter the weather, the show must go on.
A little history. William Shakespeare was a financial success not just because he was a beloved and prolific playwright and poet. He made his money from managing the Globe, which put on a head-spinning array of plays each season. Today, a repertory company might offer eight or 10 shows over the course of a season, with a changing array of cast members.
In Shakespeare’s day, a company would perform dozens of plays each season, in order to maximize the box office take.
Shakespeare might have left behind some of the greatest comedies and tragedies the English-speaking world has ever known. Unfortunately, he did not leave floor plans for his theatre, which burned down in a fire resulting from a cannon shot that sent sparks into the thatched roof, with predictably disastrous results.
The theatre was painstakingly rebuilt from drawings and visitors’ descriptions. The outside is all wooden beams and white peat. The inside is cozy but surprisingly capable of seating, and standing, as many as 1,557 per show.
Some things have changed, of course. State-of-the-art sprinkler systems keep the possibility of fire at a minimum. And state-of-the-art lavatories have mercifully replaced the buckets in the area where the “groundlings” stood at the foot of the stage.
The original Globe, like all theatres built in Shakespeare’s day, had to be constructed on the far side of the Thames because the Puritans ruled London at the time and they had no tolerance for public entertainment.
As in Shakespeare’s time, you can arrive in style by boat at the Globe, as do thousands of theatregoers each year and tens of thousands of visitors who tour the theatre.
To visit the Globe, whether for a performance or a highly entertaining and informative tour, is to feel as though you’ve stepped back into history. When you first come upon the structure, so different from its steel and glass neighbors, it looks as if it has been teleported from the Middle Ages to our time. Once you get inside, there is a sense that the history has been captured perfectly and that the “bones” of the building match up with what Elizabethan visitors would have noticed 400 years ago.
If you’re going to London, at a minimum, take the tour. If you’re visiting at the right time of year, take in a show. Whether you see yourself as a groundling or one of the landed gentry in the seats, the tickets are low-cost compared with shows in London’s West End theater district.
If you’re a night owl, you can even catch midnight performances of Twelfth Night, Romeo and Juliet, and Much Ado About Nothing.
But whatever you do, don’t tell the Puritans – then you can be sure that all’s well that ends well.