I sat this week for six hours on a hard backless bench in intermittently pouring rain, watching two Shakespeare plays in a single day. Why? The extraordinary charm of the round wooden Globe Theatre on Bankside is hard, if not impossible, to explain. It started with the American actor Sam Wanamaker, who arrived in England after World War II and demanded to be taken to Shakespeare's theatre. The baffled cab driver said there was no such thing. "Then we must build one," said the young actor.
It took him 47 years and he didn't live to see it opened by his daughter, the actress Zoe Wanamaker in 1997, but his legacy is here on the banks of the Thames, less than 100 yards from the 1599 original. This beautiful replica of Shakespeare's own theatre is circular, with covered galleries for the toffs like me and a partially covered playing area. But the vast majority of the audience are what are again known as groundlings — that is, they stand in the open area in front of the stage, uncovered, open to the elements which, on days like this, can be extremely elemental. There is nowhere to sit or lean and they are not, for fire regulations rules, allowed to occupy the aisles between the covered galleries, so there is no shelter at all.
|photo by John Haynes|
Thus, on a day more suited to April than July, alternating bright sunshine and torrential rain, stood a packed house for Dominic Dromgoole's lucid traditional production of Henry IV: Part 1, in the afternoon and, after a break to dry out, Henry IV: Part 2, in the evening. Despite my being seated undercover, I was proud to be in that audience of (mostly) young people in shorts and t-shirts because their only concession to the periodic deluges was to don hurriedly purchased plastic ponchos or to raise the hoods of their ubiquitous hoodies. Nobody left, no matter how wet they were. For many, this was not only their first Shakespeare, it was their first-ever theatre experience and they loved it. Sopping wet, often cold, they were thrilled by the play, by the involvement with the actors who came and went through the audience, and by the bawdy jokes that Shakespeare inserts into many of his plays. Before the show, there were mummers, medieval entertainers whose broad humor and overt sexuality delighted the children in the audience. During the play, there are songs, period ballads to move the action along, and at the end, the entire cast dances — a joyous dance that, in Shakespeare's day, would have banished any residual sadness that might have been left by the play. There was no sadness at the Globe this week. At the end of the Henrys, at nearly 11:30 at night, the audience — wet, cold, tired — cheered, stamped in the puddles, and refused to leave until the cast came back on stage to receive their applause. The cast, led by Roger Allam as Falstaff, to their everlasting credit, raised their well-trained actors' voices just enough to overcome the din of the rain and carried on with no more recognition of the weather than the occasional comic glance at the sky when the script makes reference to "a tempest" or "blow wind." Looking out at the Thames flowing past, where it has always been, just outside the theatre's courtyard, the inclemency of the weather brought all of us in the Globe closer together, closer to the cast who were weathering it with us, and, across 400 years, closer to Shakespeare.
Theatricality is everywhere if you know where to look and not necessarily inside theatres. On my way into the National Theatre yesterday evening I stopped to look at the sun setting on the Thames before incarcerating myself in a dark auditorium, when I became aware of what looked at first to be a class in progress. A gaggle of casually dressed teenagers were sprawling on the artificial turf between the theatre lobby and the riverbank, listening attentively to a young woman with a clipboard. Then I noticed that a few of them were upside down, several others were bent into funny shapes and still others were banging hammers into odd-shaped pieces of equipment. Intrigued, I stopped to watch. I wasn't the only one.
In line with the National Theatre's commitment to use every inch of their space for theatrical purposes, here was a circus, just in the process of setting up. Acrobats pretzeled (is that a word?) into impossible positions; aerialists built their frames and then flew; clowns, still wearing their jeans and t-shirts, carefully emplaced their props. As yet, there were no costumes or make-up, so what they were doing was, in a way, even more remarkable than it would be when distanced by spangles and latex and false eyelashes. In common with everyone else who happened to be passing the National Theatre on this particular evening, I got myself an ice-cream and settled down with the end of the working-day, going-home crowd to be enchanted. I nearly missed my play.
I fancy that The Bridge Project is one of those ideas dreamed up late at night by friends over a bottle of wine but, unlike most of these blue-sky schemes, it is one of the few that has survived the light of morning. "What if," somebody must have said (probably the director Sam Mendes or maybe his partner in crime, Kevin Spacey), "we could form a company composed of both American and British actors and keep them together, playing a repertoire of the classics, for a year or more? Let's base it in London at the Old Vic (where Spacey is artistic director) and in New York at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Oh, and while we're about it, let's tour them around to Singapore, France, Hong Kong, Germany, Spain and the Netherlands. Even Mendes says the idea is "unhinged."
But, against all the odds, The Bridge Project is now in its second year and has just opened at the Old Vic with this year's offerings, both Shakespeares, one a comedy, the other a drama — As You Like It and The Tempest (through Aug. 21). It's an amazing achievement; even the numbers bear this out: 40 actors, container-loads of scenery and three gigantic sets.
Not that there aren't problems with the productions themselves. Stephen Dillane is a laid-back jokey Jacques in As You Like It, where he even manages a very funny Bob Dylan imitation, but an almost inaudible Prospero in The Tempest. It wasn't until I talked with colleagues at intermission that I stopped worrying that my hearing might be defective; nobody else could hear him either. I feel rather mean criticizing the results when the impulse is so brave. As Mendes himself says, the journey is the point. The Bridge Project is a worthy enterprise, an opportunity for us to see what happens when artificial barriers are removed and the Anglo-American theatrical instincts are allowed to flourish.
(Ruth Leon is a London and New York City arts writer and critic whose work has been seen in Playbill magazine and other publications.)
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