Park Street, Southwark SE19
If there's one name that is synonymous with Shakespeare, it is that of the Globe Theatre. And it's a fair link - the theatre helped to make the playwright's career and the playwright has helped the theatre to go down in history.
The image of the Globe - a little thatched turret of a theatre with tiered seating and a raised stage - has become an enduring symbol of the Elizabethan age. Its popularity, then as now, firmly centred around a man who observed life with a humour and insight that has never been equalled.
This remarkable partnership, Shakespeare and his famous wooden 'O', lasted a scant fourteen years yet the memory of it has been preserved for almost 400. While a beautiful and faithful reconstruction of the Globe (pictured above) has now been built on the Bankside, all trace of the original disappeared for three and a half centuries, a small portion of it only resurfacing last year.
The Globe was one of a number of public theatres that suddenly sprang up in Southwark towards the end of the sixteenth century. Although bull and bear baiting rings had existed for some time, until then plays had always been staged on church steps or in inn yards.
Built on a site on the south side of modern-day Park Street, the Globe was assembled using timbers from London's very first playhouse, The Theatre. The Theatre had been opened by James Burbage, father of Shakespeare's friend and fellow actor Richard Burbage, in Shoreditch in 1576. When the lease on the land ran out in 1598, Richard and his brother Cuthbert simply dismantled the playhouse and took it over the river.
The Globe opened for business in 1599. Its sign was Hercules carrying the world on his shoulders and an apt latin quotation 'all the world's a stage' was carved over the front. Ever the Jackdaw, Shakespeare reworked this reference from Petronius into 'As You Like It', a kind of educated wink to the intellectuals in the audience.
The theatre seems to have drawn good audiences from the start. Shakespeare already had a reputation as a writer by this time, as did Burbage's acting troupe, the Chamberlain's Men. The combination was a great success and Shakespeare set about creating a string of new plays to expand their repertoire. From then on, the group spent every Summer season playing in the open at the Globe and every Winter under cover at their sister theatre, the Blackfriars. Amongst the plays they performed during that period were: Richard II; Romeo and Juliet; King Lear; Othello; Henry VIII; Love's Labour's Lost; The Winter's Tale; The Taming of the Shrew and Macbeth.
With two thriving theatres to run and frequent invitations to Court to fulfil, the Chamberlain's Men went from strength to strength. They quickly won the patronage of the new king, James I, when Queen Elizabeth died in 1603 and were then allowed to rename themselves the King's Men.
The official stamp of royal approval would have enhanced the status of the company no end and the future of the Globe was assured. The theatre was held in such esteem, in fact, that when it burned down following an accident with a stage cannon during a performance of Henry VIII in 1613, the public and the monarch generously found the funds to rebuild it.
The Globe survived until 1642 when it was closed by the Puritans. It was demolished two years later. A succession of other buildings replaced the theatre over the next three centuries, the last being a brewery. When this closed, the site became a no man's land, shielded from the street by a high wall and a steel gate. There was nothing to betray its history except a grime-covered plaque placed by a long defunct 'Shakespeare Reading Society'.
This was how the American actor and director Sam Wanamaker found the site in Park Street when he made a point of searching it out in 1949. Wanamaker, who was in England filming 'Give Us This Day' (released in the US as 'Christ in Concrete'), was so shocked that he decided to launch a campaign to rebuild the Globe. The scheme took just over twenty years to come to fruition but plans to reconstruct the theatre on its original site were thwarted. He finally obtained permission to build close by on the Bankside where work began in 1987. The new Shakespeare's Globe celebrated its highly acclaimed opening season last year.
* The site of the Globe is partly covered by a Georgian listed building, Anchor Terrace. The remaining area, which has been designated an ancient monument, has been laid with cobble stones. A brick semi-circle shows limit of the monument and, within this, a differently coloured semi-circle pin points the exact location of the Globe. The plaque which inspired Sam Wanamaker has been reset in a special surround fronting the site.
The site of the Globe can be viewed at any time from the street. A number of informative hoardings have been erected explaining the history of the area.
The reconstructed Shakespeare's Globe can be found at New Globe Walk, Bankside, London SE1. The Globe complex includes an outstanding exhibition covering all aspects of the theatre's history. It is open daily from 10 am to 5 pm during the winter and from 9am to 12 noon during the Theatre Season.
The Globe is open to the elements and plays are presented from May to August only.
Mansion House, Cannon Street (District & Circle lines)
Copyright © Jan Collie 2002
Published on Britannia by permission of the author.
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