To celebrate the 400th anniversary this year of the publication of the First Folio of William Shakespeare’s plays, the Globe Theatre produced a single, special performance of one of those plays, Twelfth Night, on Sunday evening, 17 September.
In case you were not aware, Shakespeare’s Globe is a faithful replica of the 16th-century theatre in which many of Shakespeare’s plays were first produced, and was created through the efforts and determination of an American actor, the late Sam Wanamaker.
It is thanks to Shakespeare’s colleagues in the King’s Company of actors, John Heminges and Henry Condell, who gathered the plays together and printed them in a single volume (the First Folio), that a number of Shakespeare’s plays survived until the present day.
Twelfth Night is a comedy of errors. Some of the comedy arises from the misunderstanding of the characters, and some from the comic personalities of the characters themselves. It depends upon the interplay of nobles and servants, and the foolishness of humanity, specifically portrayed in the person of Feste, the chief nobleman’s jester.
Producing a play the Shakespearean way
The theatre was very important in Shakespeare’s day. It was the foremost source of popular entertainment. There was no television, no cinema, no social media. As a consequence, actors found themselves performing in seven different plays on seven successive nights.
To learn their script all they had were ‘cue scripts’ for those scenes which they were in. These consisted of the actor’s dialogue, with stage directions, and the lead in cue. The actors often only spoke their lines to each other for the first time at the performance. To help things along, the prompter sat on the stage, ready to give an actor his or her forgotten line, while also reading in the occasional smaller part.
The theatre building
Shakespeare referred to the Globe as “This wooden O”, because of its circular construction. While there is a thatched cover over the galleries around the outside, the centre, right around the stage, as well as the stage itself, is open to the elements. This ‘ground’ is where the ‘groundlings’ stand throughout the performance. The stage is a great square, raised about a metre and a half above the ground. To some degree it is shielded from the falling rain by a large tester held up by immense wooden columns.
One distraction which the actors of Shakespeare’s own time wouldn’t have had to face would be the planes taking off every ten minutes or so from London City Airport, some 12 kilometres downstream to the east.
Since this was a special, one-off production, I gauged that the majority of the sold-out audience were Globe regulars, rather than tourists. The theatre was packed to the rafters, literally. My friend Derrick and I had seats in the lower gallery, at stage level, just off the stage left corner. We sat on a wooden bench, which might have been less painful if we’d thought, as others did, to rent a cushion and mini chair back each. Well, we’ll know better for the future.
Because, as I believe, the audience was more in the know than perhaps other audiences, each time the dialogue dried, or an appeal went out to the prompter, it was greeted by a tsunami of applause from the house, and multiple grins on stage.
The cast, who had in true spirit met for the first time on the Sunday morning, were clearly enjoying themselves, and so did we, the audience.
There were times, not only when an aeroplane was passing overhead, when it was difficult to hear the dialogue. While this was a pity, I did not find that it detracted too much from my enjoyment of the play. To make up for it there was plenty of comic business, not least from Sir Andrew Aguecheek, played by Paul Ready, a poetic soul in love with the lady Olivia and ready to fight her servant ‘Cesario’ for her attention. His portrayal of a man desperately trying to overcome his cowardice and play the hero was both touching and hilarious.
Paul Chahidi’s Feste was beautifully balanced in pace, with Shakespeare’s script added to with some witty modern references. He showed himself to be in possession of a pleasant voice when singing the odd ‘catch’.
The two lead characters, Olivia, played by the Globe’s artistic director, Michelle Terry, and Malvolio, Olivia’s steward, played by Stephen Mangan, both gave excellent performances.
Terry ran the gamut of emotions from Olivia’s black grief at the recent death of her brother, to flirtatious behaviour towards her new servant, Cesario, who is actually Viola, disguised in male garb. Mangan presented a truly puritan portrait of the man in charge of the household, until Malvolio is tricked into believing that Olivia is smitten with him. At this point Malvolio’s behaviour becomes fawning to the extent that he’s taken and locked away as mad.
A great evening’s entertainment
Derrick and I set off from the Globe, hugely satisfied by what we had seen and heard. Only a few metres along Bankside, needing refreshment after such a long period of laughter, we turned into a pub, where we slaked our thirst and discovered that the second half of England’s World Cup match against Japan had just started, and was being televised live from the South of France.
We were back in the world of 20th-century amusement in no uncertain terms! Nevertheless, I shall look out for another opportunity to settle down in that wooden O and become absorbed in another of William Shakespeare’s magnificent plays.