Stage Presence

The reconstucted Globe Theatre is a star in its own right.

September 27, 2001|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

LONDON - It rises up on the south bank of the Thames River like a bold anachronism, from its oak and lime-plaster walls to its thatched roof.

No one knows exactly what Shakespeare's Globe Theatre looked like. The original burned down in 1613 when a spark from a cannon used in a performance ignited the thatch. Rebuilt the same year, the theater was closed by the Puritans in 1642 and torn down two years later. Evidence about the Globe's appearance is sparse - several sketchy maps, some fragments from an archaeological dig and, of course, the line in the prologue to Shakespeare's Henry V referring to the theater as "this wooden O."

"This is our best guess," tour guide Claire Duttson informs a group of 14 as they step inside the half-timbered, reconstructed walls and step back in time. The 20-sided structure features a raised stage and three tiers of benches surrounding an open-air yard paved with a mixture of hazelnut shells and silt.

In a few hours, the yard will be filled with hundreds of "groundlings," who have paid five British pounds (roughly $7.50) for the right to stand shoulder-to-shoulder, rain or shine, to see Cymbeline, one of three Shakespeare plays mounted from mid-May to late September this year.

Some are tourists, some are schoolchildren, some are regulars who wouldn't dream of trading their standing room for one of the theater's hard benches - even with the cushions that rent for $1.50.

"This is the closest you can get to the action," says Robert Frost, a university lecturer from Middlesex on his fourth annual visit. During the performance, Frost leans against the edge of the stage, his head just inches from the actors' feet. Having stood through a soggy Julius Caesar two seasons ago, he dresses in his usual Globe garb - a gray-and-blue hooded windbreaker (umbrellas are banned because they block sightlines).

In theory, the groundlings can mill around during a performance. Initially, some did more than that. Mark Rylance, the Globe's artistic director and an actor in many of its productions, recalls that in 1997, the theater's first full season, "We had a couple of American actors playing Frenchmen in Henry V, and they were being pelted with vegetables and got very upset."

Audiences have calmed down since then, and on this occasion, the groundlings stand nearly rooted in place, totally absorbed in director Mike Alfreds' interpretation of Cymbeline, which uses a minimal cast of six white-garbed actors to play more than two dozen roles.

Touring shows

The productions are the most visible component of Shakespeare's Globe, and they have a wider reach than south London. Each of this season's shows has been invited to travel. Macbeth will be performed in Italy next month and King Lear in Japan; Cymbeline has been invited to New York's Brooklyn Academy of Music this spring. There's even a new, off-site indoor London production slated for January and February - Twelfth Night at Middle Temple Hall, 400 years after the play premiered there.

But the theater and its productions are only part of the overall mission of the Globe, which general director Peter Kyle compares to "a three-legged stool." The other two legs are an extensive exhibition, and an educational program that has branches in Australia, Denmark, Germany, Japan, New Zealand and the United States. The Globe's overall annual operating budget is $12.5 million, the bulk of which comes from theater and exhibition revenues; the institution receives no government funding.

Without the United States, the Globe probably wouldn't have been rebuilt. Shakespeare may have been the greatest writer in the English language, but his countrymen balked when it came to reconstructing the theater where many of his masterpieces debuted.

Instead, the impetus came from an American actor, the late Sam Wanamaker, and much of the early money came from his countrymen, according to Elspeth Udvarhelyi, the Baltimorean who served as the Globe's director of development for several seasons and as acting general manager in 1998.

Udvarhelyi - who retired from the Globe two years ago, but remains involved - admits even she was skeptical when she was first approached by the former British ambassador to the United States in 1993. "I just thought it sounded like an idea that would never happen. It seemed such a huge project," she says. Then she met Wanamaker, a man whose mission turned into an obsession.

That obsession began in 1949 when the actor was making a movie in London and decided to look for the site of the Globe. He was dismayed to discover that all that remained was a tarnished plaque on a brewery wall marking the spot where the theater once stood. In 1970, Wanamaker launched what would become a 27-year project to rebuild the theater. He died in 1993, living just long enough to see construction begin.

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