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We Laughed, We Gasped, We Gawked

Published: May 11, 2017

We Laughed, We Gasped, We Gawked

The Globe Theatre in London, a reproduction of Shakespeare’s Elizabethan playhouse, is just 200 meters from the site of the original.

Blog posts and photos by faculty on the London site visit to the London & Florence: Arts in Context program

Cyn Fitch

Romeo and Juliet at the Globe Theatre

Post by Cyn Fitch, Associate Professor of English and Creative Writing, Knox College

I was excited about the prospect of seeing a production of Romeo and Juliet at the Globe in London. Pinch me! But when I read a review in Time Out London of what artistic director Emma Rice was doing I felt I had to prepare myself for a possible train wreck. The article’s writer, Andrzej Lukowski, called the production, “savagely ironic vaudeville” and “vicious sarcasm.” In a different review, The Guardian described it as “a bellowing pantomime” and also called it “perverse.” I couldn’t fathom what Rice might have done with the work of our beloved, centuries old Bard, but I was set to find out on our last night in London.

Walking to the theater from the Underground, across the Thames, past the Tate Modern, beneath chilly, drizzling London skies helped build my anticipation. The bustling atmosphere surrounding us took on a festival-like feel that continued to build as we got closer. For me, it was as exciting to finally see the theater from the outside as it was to walk through its gates and into the open air of the playhouse.

Days prior, Professor Corinne Scheiner spent time in the classroom with the students in Visiting Faculty Director Nancy Barry's course, Theatrical Spaces, Enduring Questions, Changeable Lives: Theatre in London Then and Now, to talk about the history of the Globe. Originally built to Shakespeare’s specifications in the 16th century, its current iteration, circa 1996, is situated roughly 200 meters from the site of the original Globe, and the new theater is as close a reproduction of Shakespeare’s Elizabethan playhouse as historians were able to achieve.

Audience entering the Globe

The audience begins to enter the Globe before the performance of Romeo and Juliet.

Professor Scheiner shared with us a drawing from 1596, but discovered in 1888, by Johannes de Witt that offers the bulk of what’s known about playhouses from the Elizabethan era. The Globe’s polygonal shape gives it the illusion of roundness. The proscenium style features a thrusting, rectangular, raised stage projecting into the theater. At the back of the platform is the Tiring House. Think “attire” where actors dress as well as enter and exit the stage. The tectum, or a kind of roof, is above the stage but does not extend over the entire theater, and a second “hut” is above that, for the announcer. Under the announcer’s space but above the stage is the “heavens.” Depending upon the production, this space can be used to literally represent the celestial sky or as in the case of the production we saw, to create a metaphoric atmosphere draped with ragged black sheets and missile shaped warheads.

"We were watching Shakespeare in his Elizabethan playhouse under an open and sometimes drizzling London sky, chilled the bone and delighted to be present."

There’s no curtain in an Elizabethan playhouse. Towering Ionic-capped columns flank the stage. The platform is five and a half feet above the floor and though it wasn’t employed in the production we saw, there’s a trap door in the floor.

Sam Wannamaker is credited with reviving the Globe in the 20th century and most of what he used to rebuild it came from what he could divine through Shakespeare’s plays. Wannamaker’s project was completed in 1996 and its first performance opened the following year.

The Globe’s three tiers of seating and additional standing space combine for an audience capacity of 1,500. Though the new playhouse necessarily includes lighting, sound systems, and thankfully, modern restrooms, it retains much of what theatergoers in Shakespeare’s time might have encountered. For instance, the standing space is for audience members to experience being “groundlings.” In the Elizabethan theater, groundlings were the uncultivated, peasant class — the cheap seats if you will.

These days, groundling tickets are still the more affordable tickets, but Professor Barry knew the importance of giving us the full experience so she purchased half our group’s tickets for the floor and the other half on the bottom of the theater’s three tiers. At intermission, those of us who started out standing switched with those who’d been seated. Both vantage points provided interesting perspectives and energies that helped give us all a fuller experience.

A London & Florence program student checks out the view from the stage during a tour of the Globe (left). ACM faculty (from front) Corinne Scheiner (Colorado), Amy Weldon (Luther), and Cyn Fitch (Knox) queue up for spots in the Globe's groundling section.

But back to expectations set up by what we’d read of the play’s reception in the world. Lukowski’s review in Time Out London went on to describe Emma Rice’s influence on this production as, “punk as heck.” I don’t disagree with him. One of my colleagues described it as, “Kabuki meets Marcel Marceau,” but frankly, that only skims the surface of its strange personality. I don’t know how to reconcile the Pluto costume worn by Mercutio with the dinosaur costume that Lord Capulet wore. Or, what was that dress Lady Capulet donned featuring a King Kong hand wrapped around it?

Besides the strange costuming, nothing prepared me for the moment Romeo and Juliet were finally on stage together and the entire cast broke into a raucous dance routine to the tune of “Y.M.C.A.” featuring a very scantily-clad male dancer and that ended with explosions of metallic streamers raining down over the groundlings. Add a hint of Mexican Day of the Dead costuming, an edge of Tim Burton, and a dash of The Addams Family and maybe you can begin to imagine what we witnessed. As for the play’s dialogue, actors largely maintained the integrity of Elizabethan dialects though some soliloquies were delivered with such verve and volume that spittle flew from the actors’ mouths. 

Don’t get me wrong, it was fun. We laughed; we gasped; we gawked. But what in the world did we witness? I don’t think we ever truly figured that out. I don’t think anyone anywhere, according to the multiple reviews I’ve read, has yet figured it out. A discussion the next morning with Professor Scheiner settled it best for me. She said that a translation works when the reason for the translation adds to the value and understanding of the work. Try as we might, we couldn’t attach any understanding to Rice’s dissonant artistic decisions and, apparently, neither can anyone else.

But, folks, it was the Globe and we were watching Shakespeare in his Elizabethan playhouse under an open and sometimes drizzling London sky, chilled the bone and delighted to be present. We laughed. Juliet cried. Juliet cried a lot. And we came away from it scratching our heads but glad, I think, to have been part of the whole experience.

Later, walking back across the Thames towards our Tube stop was just as magical as arriving, this time the lights of the London skyline reflecting off the water, Millennium Bridge glowing beneath our feet, and St. Paul’s Cathedral looming, a building, now that I think about it, that has always been across the Thames from where the Globe stood, used to stand and now stands again.

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