When I return London in the near future, I shall attend a production at the reconstructed Globe Theatre. Having taken the requisite guided tour during my recent trip, I kept struggling against what can only be called disappointment and chagrin. Surely the reconstructed theatre rising on the Southwark site of the original is a great achievement. Despite hordes of school children who were cajoled and marshalled about the scene along with myself, I was glad to see “this wooden O,” and its “most excellent canopy ... this majestical roof fretted with golden fire.” Allowing for the artificiality of the experience, I was pleased to sit in the galleries, to stand in front of the stage, to get a sense of how unnervingly close the Elizabethan and Jacobean audiences must have been to the actors on stage. A soliloquy became overheard speech, the audience eavesdropping on the private thoughts of Hamlet, Edmund, Macbeth, Othello, Viola, and other much distressed or preoccupied characters. One might have felt the spit spraying out of Lear’s howling mouth or caught Cleopatra’s dying breath as she departed, leaving nothing remarkable under the visiting moon.
The Globe Theatre, London
No performance scheduled that day or the next, I left to wander into the Tate Modern, formerly the Bankside Power Station, next door to the theatre. The Globe a reconstruction and the Tate Modern a renovation and conversion. One building devoted to the quasi-glorification of a single author whose name is on everyone’s lips, and the other housing modern and contemporary art by many artists whose names, with exceptions, are not household words. In the evening of the same and somewhat exhausting day, I attended a performance of Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi at the renovated Old Vic theatre of fabulous lore, a fair hike from the Tate and the Globe, but after stopping for a refreshing tea and a thick vegetarian/avocado sandwich at a convenient Prêt à Manger along the way, worth the effort. The sandwich was also worth the eating, fresh bread baked on the premises, local ingredients except for the avocado, generous in size, and satisfying the appetite.
Exhilarated by the contents of the Tate, and enthralled by the production at the Old Vic, I have ruminated long about why the reconstructed Globe did not elicit the same enthusiasm. Arguably it was because I did not see a Shakespearean play on its boards, an omission to be corrected next time around. Arguably that would not have made a difference to my disheartened feelings. It had nothing to do with the crowds of local school children. The Tate was equally crowded, although admittedly spread over more extensive space; but I was free to take my time and stroll without time constraints or barriers. Just about every seat was taken at the Old Vic, and I have never failed to enjoy Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi. My feelings about the Globe may have had something to do with the volunteer guide trying to be amusing, and my inability to walk freely about the premises. One is leashed, led, timed, seated in designated locations, directed, and ordered about. Oh, it was all interesting, of course, and I do remember the initial thrill, yes, thrill is the correct word, when I walked on the Millennium Bridge over the Thames, the Wren’s remarkable dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral behind me, and to my left the very picture of the Globe Theatre. Look, there it is!
Interior of The Globe Theatre
The thrill dissipated as I listened in line to instructions and oft-repeated facts. I did not recover said thrill until I entered the Tate and could scarcely contain the excitement over confronting both familiar and strange works of the twentieth century and the day before yesterday, from sculpture by Boccioni to fabric art by Do Ho Suh. I have long been a reader and former teacher of Shakespeare, seeing many productions of the plays over the years, including several exuberant productions in Stratford-upon-Avon on this same trip to England. I should have felt at home in the reconstructed Globe. I should have been transported. I fell into the slough of despond. I soliloquized and wanted to get out.
The Tate resurrected my joy. Perhaps a replica or reconstruction may have the tendency to kill the imagination or spirit. Perhaps there is a dark aspect to glorifications and resurrections from cultural graves. I don’t blame commercialism. Even during Shakespeare’s day, business of one kind or another was afoot in the theatre. Souvenirs from the charming to the tacky bring in money. Every cultural site is strapped for cash. One is not forced to buy anything. Perhaps the sense of earnestness, or the too-worshipful approach, always a problem with Shakespeare, or the self-congratulations implicit in the structure, all grate the nerves. The Tate stands free and open in a manner of speaking: take me as you find me, herein are discombobulating creations you may or may not understand, but I’m not a ghost of the past rendered visible. There is nothing hallowed herein. One can breathe and not be suffocated by the accumulation of attitudes.
The Tate Modern
The story of the American actor Sam Wanamaker, the guiding spirit like Prospero behind the reconstruction of the Globe, is admirable, and the world thanks him for his energy and dedication. People agree that the new Globe is indeed a major cultural achievement. They are also excavating the site where Shakespeare’s house, New Place, once stood in Stratford-upon-Avon. Several layers of history and owners have been uncovered in the various pits. Frankly, I didn’t and don’t see the purpose aside from local archaeological history, but I lack a wider view of things. Not a brick, nor wattle and daub, remained on the ground of the home Shakespeare purchased after supposedly retiring from the stage and returning to Stratford to live out the last years of his life. What is to be reconstructed, if it is, and to what purpose? Yes, there is the house where he lived as a child. I stopped by there as a matter of duty and some curiosity, and tried not to be embarrassed by guides dressed in sixteenth century garb, and musicians singing songs of the times, or acting out snippets of scenes. Really, unlike the homes of other writers I saw in England, I did not get a sense of Shakespeare the man or writer at all. Pushed out by glorification and tourists among whom I numbered, his genius has vacated the premises. I do recommend the clotted cream fudge, however, in the souvenir shop.
Next year I shall return to London and the Globe to test my impressions. I want to be entranced by watching actors on the reconstructed stage scholars say that Shakespeare also trod upon in minor roles, and open my heart and mind to whatever thrill awaits me in the wooden O (well, an octagonal to be accurate). And next door, there is always the invigorating Tate Modern.
Kenneth Radu in front of The Old Vic.
Copyright © 2013, Kenneth Radu
Kenneth Radu is the author of several books (fiction, poetry, and a memoir), the most recent being a volume of short stories, Sex in Russia (DC Books). A new collection entitled Earthbound is also forthcoming from DC. He is currently working on a novel manuscript, other stories, and now and then enjoys writing something else. He lives near Montreal.
Photos: Courtesy Kenneth Radu