I am relentlessly curious about theatres in particular backstage. What is is like back there? Is it as glamorous as the rest of the theatre (that depends on the theatre in question) or it is basic? My only experience of working in the theatre was in my first year of university during my Writing for Stage module in 2012 and the production of my play Captured in the Chelsea Theatre in the same year. I’ve been a Friend of the Globe for several years but I have only just managed attend the the Heaven and Hell tour where you are led into the attic, the basement and backstage of the iconic building. Here are my thoughts on the experience.
First of all, Shakespeare’s Globe is not Shakespeare’s Globe, that is to say it is not the theatre that Shakespeare would have used. Although several theatres have taken the name of The Globe only three have links to the bard. The first Globe Theatre was built by Shakespeare’s acting troop, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, in 1599. During a performance of King Henry VIII in 1613, a prop cannon misfired setting the thatch roof alight. Although no-body was killed in the fire, the only casualty being one man’s breeches which was extinguished with ale, the theatre was destroyed and had to be rebuilt the following year. The second Globe Theatre continued performances long after Shakespeare’s death and was eventually closed down by the puritans in 1642. The current Globe, titled Shakespeare’s Globe, was built in 1997 just over two hundred metres away from the original site.
Aside from the gift shop, cafe and the modern conveniences of toilets, the modern globe is meant to be a replica of the original. Where possible the builders have used the same techniques of construction as their tutor counterparts. There are, however some differences. The first globe was built with the stage facing away from the sun so that during fight scenes an actor would not be blinded and accidentally stab their friend. The modern theatre does not have this luxury and directors have to take into account during productions. The two pillars in the middle of the stage are incorrectly placed.
Recent evidence has emerged that the two pillars should be further back and closer together. Surprisingly this is something of an issue for actors. They claim that while on stage the pillars make them feel boxed in, making them forget that they are able to move stage left and stage right.
The final inaccuracy, although understandable, is the numbered seating in the audience. In Shakespeare’s time anyone could pay a penny to stand in the yard before the stage and they would be known as groundlings. You can still do this today if you pay five pounds and you have the added benefit of the cast walking among you. In the modern Globe we have three tiers of numbered rows where audiences can sit. There is seating for approximately for three hundred and fifty plus an additional approximate three hundred groundings. This would have been half of a typical audience in Elizabethan times. The reason our Globe seems to be half the size of the original is for health and safety reasons but I can confirm that when the theatre is fully booked, it is a bit of a squeeze.
I was surprised at how fragile the theatre is. There are lots of worrying cracks in the stage, pillars and the walls of the building. The famous thatched roof, the only thatched roof in London, is stricken with moss. This is because when the roof was installed the manager at the time thought the thatch would benefit from being constantly wet, in the hope it would make it stronger. Unfortunately this is the opposite of what you are suppose to do with thatch and as such green moss now grows in the rafters and occasionally falls onto the groundlings. It is from this moss in the thatch roof that mushrooms briefly grew.
Our first stop in the tour was heaven. Heaven, also known as the attic is in the roof of the stage, above the balcony. It is in here where the lights are controlled, sound equipment (such as the thunder sheet) is used and a bell is kept to signify the start of a show. Most notably, this is where actors, normally portraying Gods or Angels, descend onto the stage via a harness. Unfortunately the only part of the globe that is sturdy is the stage floor itself. The wooden beams of the stage are made from green oak and if an actor is lowered to hastily they may end up with shin splints as they land. Ouch.
The backstage area, directly behind the doors at stage level, is similar to a small hall. There are monitors so the actors can see what is happening on stage, see their cue to enter and spy on the audience. There is also a lift connecting backstage to the attic, if a large prop is needed such as a double bed or, in the instance of A Mid Summer’s Night’s Dream, a jazzed up golf cart, it can be brought down at a moment’s notice. Our guide informed us that this system works beautifully… until the lift breaks down mid show.
Hell lived up to it’s name. There is a very narrow staircases that leads to Hell from Backstage. I had to bend double to explore the area. There is a trap door centre stage where actors can emerge. Most directors will choose not to incorporate Hell into their plays if possible as it is cumbersome for actors to use.
I want to end this review with a funny superstition. During the tour we noticed little cardboard doors stuck to odd sections of the walls. These are for the fairies to use. Believe in fairies, pixies and the supernatural was rife in Elizabethan times and some of these believes have remained with the building. In the attic is a miniature Globe Theatre, brought from the gift shop, where the fairies are meant to live.
I hope you have enjoyed reading my Review of the building itself. If you have yet to attend the Globe I recommend that you do so. All of my reviews on previous Globe productions can be found below by clicking on their titles. I hope you learnt something new and I’ll see you next time.