It took me a long time to get to see my first production at the Globe theatre on London’s South Bank. Since it first opened in 1997 and I am a regular theatregoer who loves Shakespeare this is is surprising- even though I live a long way from London. The final night of the 2014 revival of Lucy Bailey’s acclaimed production of Titus Andronicus was a good place to start. Red roses were thrown at the curtain call and there was an end of term feeling in the air. There were some fine performances in the grand style, particularly from Indira Varma as Tamora, Obi Abili as Aaron and William Houston as Titus. The production had gathered a lot of publicity from the fact that over 100 audience members had fainted, unable to cope with the violence. There are graphic murders, severed hands and a chopped off tongue. It was a full on production, unafraid of the link between this extreme violence and black comedy- one which took risks. Flora Spencer-Longhurst as Lavinia had to carry the brunt of this and the numbers keeling over or being led out were a real tribute to a convincing and heartfelt performance. The audience were fully involved throughout as actors moved among them, were pushed through the crowd on high towers or spoke directly to them and their response was both visible and immediate. Their attention had to be earned and sustained by the hard work of the actors. It was played, as it would have been originally, in daylight and there was no way of avoiding the fact, as is sometimes said, that they were fifty per cent of the show.
The Globe seats 857 with an additional 700 standing “groundlings”. This is about half the audience capacity of the original Globe, built in 1599. It lasted for only a short while before it burnt down on 29th June 1613. I was sitting up in one of the gentlemen’s rooms stage left with seven other people and it was still a surprisingly intimate experience given the size of the space. I was looking out over the standing area as well as the stage and the whole experience became one of watching the audience as well as that of watching the play. Normally this would be quite a damning comment on any production but it isn’t in this case. It is a comment on how a staging of this kind is a communal experience between actors and audience in a shared space. At one point a whole group left their seats to move down into the standing area and one of the cast asked them where they were going without it seeming in the least bit odd. I have no doubt at all that the original performances would have had the same fluidity and direct communication. It isn’t a choice made by the production- it is dictated by the space. I’m also sure that the original Titus audiences would have appreciated the black comedy, although I doubt that many of them would have fainted given that they were well used to seeing violence, both on the street and sanctioned by the state. They would possibly have been far more engaged with the action than some of today’s groundlings as even the standing room was expensive compared to the £5 tickets of today, which allow people to wander in for the price of a couple of mugs of coffee and wander out again when they have seen what it is like. Back then all strata of society went along to the plays and they went often.
Going to the Globe was a strange experience, a mixture of a very good production, people watching, and enjoying being a tiny part of tourist London. What I wouldn’t give to have an evening at the original Globe in the early 1600’s………… now that would be something.