I used to be a right wimp. For years I was put off going to the magnificent Shakespeare’s Globe on London’s Bankside because I was scared of being exposed to the elements and having to sit on the notoriously uncomfortable wooden benches. Getting cold and wet and making my back ache? I’ll do a lot for theatre – twelve depressing hours on a coach to Edinburgh is testament to that – but the Globe always felt like a step too far! It didn’t even cross my mind to stand in the yard for the duration of a Shakespeare, oh goodness no, and yet it turns out that all along I was missing out on a delightfully novel and enjoyable theatrical experience.
Last week I was finally persuaded to toughen up in order to see the homecoming run of the Globe’s touring production The Comedy of Errors. Even I had to admit that five pounds was too good a price to miss for the chance to see quality Shakespeare in one of theatre’s most iconic buildings. I even managed to convince myself that if I was willing to spend endless hours standing in the pouring rain at music festivals, I should be willing to endure the same for theatre. In artistic terms, Shakespeare trumps Radiohead any day of the week. Although it wasn’t long before I was doing my special shifty weight dance and standing on my tiptoes in order to see, I didn’t regret my decision to stand for one second.
As a groundling I felt a connection to the experience of Shakespeare’s original audience, and suddenly the context and intention of his writing became perfectly clear. The language of a long soliloquy will not fail to capture your attention, while you are still free to gaze up to the lone star in the London sky and imagine you’re living in a different era entirely (until a loud airplane flies overhead and rudely destroys this illusion of timelessness). With airplanes replacing hecklers as the main disruption, the actors continue regardless, their voices carrying effortlessly as they play skilfully to every angle, top and bottom, interacting with the groundlings with some hilarious improvisation.
The zany, energetic nonsense of The Comedy of Errors had the audience moving to make space for the actors’ antics in the yard, and it is only by standing that you really feel in the middle of the action. At first I was convinced that a comedy would be a lot more enjoyable to see than a tragedy or history, but I should imagine that feeling so close to a spectacular fight scene would be just as thrilling. Standing amongst a group of people means that the energy of the actors ripples through the crowd, and often the yard was alive with laughter, while a glance up to the people in the seats, much more remote from the action, showed them looking down with stony faces.
The Comedy of Errors itself was fun, fast and inspired, but the really special thing about the Globe is that, with apologies to the Bard, the play’s only half the thing. Going to the Globe is about experiencing the simplicity of the staging, the rhythm of the language, the crudeness, violence and comedy of the action, in short the very essence of Shakespeare, in the place and setting much of it was written for, and in doing so, getting a glimpse into what it would have meant for audiences of his time.