Building Shakespeare’s Globe
On our 20th anniversary, we take a look back to the building of the Globe Theatre and how it has evolved over the last two decades
Stepping into the Globe Theatre is still a small thrill. Even now, 20 years after the building was finally finished, it remains something remarkable: a space that demands to be taken in, so absolutely unlike any other. Walk through the pit doors and your eye is drawn immediately upwards – up those timber-frame columns, past the bustle of the balcony bays, up to the dark thatched roof and away into that circle of sky overhead. When that’s blue, it’s unbeatable – bright, glinting and warm – but clouds bring an atmosphere all of their own, of jeopardy, menace and drama.
The Globe was an immersive experience long before that became a buzzword. The building folds itself around you like a wooden hug. It looms over you, yet at only three storeys high, its scale still feels human. You take it all in, all 360° of it, the whole “wooden O.” There’s a reason photographers often shoot it with a fish-eye lens. The Globe places you at the centre of something, surround by hubbub, by other people, even by history itself. Whatever you’re watching, the building itself becomes the star of the show. It just seems so…improbable.
‘The Globe was an immersive experience long before that became a buzzword. The building folds itself around you like a wooden hug’
Though the idea of a reconstructed Globe dates back more than a century, to Matthew Pole in the 1890s, and several existed around the world before this one, the actual fact of it still strikes one as strange. Sam Wanamaker famously took his inspiration from the replica built for the Great Lakes World Fair in Cleveland Ohio in 1949. Britain’s first, erected at Earls Court in 1912, was a scaled-down concrete structure painted to look like timber. Today’s Globe – our Globe – owes a lot to its attempt at authenticity. The very idea of it is quixotic; the actual achievement, all the more so. As architecture, it remains curiously uncanny.
You can’t talk about the Globe as a building without touching on the building of the Globe. The nature of the architecture nods to its own construction process: all those authentic materials and methods. “You can’t call it an accurate reconstruction if you’re not using the appropriate materials,” says Peter McCurdy, the man that headed up the Globe’s build over a period of four years. The fact that it took so long – so much devotion and care – only adds to the Globe’s lustre. The Globe is, at some level, an act of folly: a pipe dream that took almost 50 years to come to fruition. That painstaking process, years of research, planning and preparation, is built into every beam.
Each of those is ‘green’ or unseasoned oak, sourced – some by McCurdy himself – from all over the UK; from the Forest of Dean to woods in West Hertfordshire, from Scotland and Wales and Northern Ireland. The challenge was finding single logs straight enough to stretch the full height of the structure: all 32 feet. “The way the English Oak grows, it doesn’t like growing straight,” McCurdy explains. In itself, each beam is unlikely, even before it became part of the building. The process makes it more so: each piece was hand-cut in workshops in Berkshire and assembled on-site using some 12,000 hand-carved wooden pegs. The two onstage pillars, carved out of single trees, weren’t turned on a lathe, but started as square timbers and were stripped back and back, corner by corner. “Eventually, those columns had 256 facets.” That’s a small measure of the meticulousness involved.
Nor does it stop there. “The timber frame is like a skeleton,” McCurdy continues, “There to receive the other elements that create a building. When it was first up, it looked quite majestic – almost a piece of sculpture.” Every other element went through a similar process that aimed at authenticity: the lime-plaster walls, concocted to an original 17th-century recipe; the lime whitewash; the water reed thatched roof, the first in London since the Great Fire of 1666.
Today’s Globe isn’t just a product of research, then, but the embodiment of it. The design was deduced from maps, drawings and written accounts. The build was based on McCurdy’s practical research, months spent scrutinizing similar structures. “Documents and maps take you so far, but they don’t tell you how to do it,” he points out. “They don’t tell you the jointing of a timber frame. They don’t tell you the methods a carpenter would have worked with in 1599. Surviving buildings tell you those things.” Every part of the building, every joint, every lathe, every pew, has a history behind it.
It becomes a kind of living history. Everyone involved – from McCurdy to original artistic director Mark Rylance – will disavow the term “authenticity”. There were compromises, of course, as per modern safety standards – additional exits for the safe egress of audiences, fire retardant thatch and a concealed sprinkler system. But none of that renders the Globe redundant.
‘Every part of the building, every joint, every lathe, every pew, has a history behind it. It becomes a kind of living history’
With an approximate reconstruction, says Head of Research Farah Karim-Cooper, “there’s only so much we can learn about how Shakespeare did it.”
Learning becomes a matter of looking at the shared properties between the two structures, the layout of the audience being the main one. Since
Shakespeare’s Globe opened, the mode of research has changed, taking a more phenomenological approach – that is, examining experiences of the
space itself, be they from actors, writers, costumiers or audiences. The Globe becomes a kind of living laboratory.
It’s taught us plenty about the way theatre once was – what it means to watch plays as a fully visible audience; why Shakespeare structured his plays as he did; the register of performance the space demands; the reactions it engenders. “All you have to do is drop the play in there and the basic features of it come to life,” Karim-Cooper says. They were written for this sort of theatrical space and, in some ways, their shapes and storytelling methods make most sense there. “You can take the plays out of the playhouse, but you can’t take the playhouse out of the plays.”
Equally, though, the Globe has reshaped our understanding of theatre as it is today. It’s why former artistic director Dominic Dromgoole talks of it as “the most radical theatre space in the UK.” As he told me last year, “Some people have a visceral loathing of it, at the heart of which is a visceral loathing of the radical way it enfranchises the audience and makes the audience the heart of the event.”
‘The Globe has reshaped our understanding of theatre as it is today. It’s the most radical theatre space in the UK’
You have to remember that back in 1997, when the Globe first opened, the black box studio reigned supreme. Spaces were small and supposedly neutral, the better to be transformed into fictional elsewheres. Audiences sat in safety in the dark. Fast forward 20 years, and the opposite is true. The Globe’s minimalism is reflected across British theatre, the aesthetic being strip the set back and admit the architecture. Found spaces have proliferated, with all their lumps and bumps, nooks and crannies, and that aesthetic has spilled into theatres themselves. The Almeida and the Royal Court routinely expose their brick back walls, while the Bush and the Almeida both built their new stages around supporting pillars. The ultimate tribute, perhaps, is at Stratford-upon-Avon. When the Royal Shakespeare Company rebuilt its main stage a decade ago, it switched from a proscenium arch to a thrust stage – an end-on pictorial space to the sort of dialogic space you find at the Globe.
Artists have learned to work with that. Writers like David Eldridge and Jessica Swale extol its virtues. For Eldridge, it’s a “totally honest and open” space that “doesn’t suffer any disingenuity at all;” “a space that eats story and narrative.” Swale, meanwhile, talks about the need to “honour the audience with a great deal of intelligence because they’re an equal in the space with you.” The Globe is nothing if not democratic.
For actors, that means engaging with audiences. James Garnon, who has performed in more Globe shows than anyone else, describes its paradoxical nature. ‘It’s a large space – 1500 people – but actually when it’s full, it feels very, very small and intimate.” Actors, he reckons, have learned how to play the Globe. “The acoustic is very, very true. It’s like any wooden instrument. It requires subtlety and delicacy. If you just attack it, you destroy the sound. You’ve got to tease the music out of it.”
A lot of that dates back to Rylance’s regime, and the fact that the first artistic director was an actor speaks volumes about the Globe. I’ve heard him spoken about as a “tuning-fork” for the space, a way of working out what works in there. Several tricks stem directly from him; that, for instance, by speaking to a single groundling, the whole space tunes in. As he said at the time, “the theatre is teaching us.”
It is, for designer Jonathan Fensom, “the ultimate stage;” a designer’s dream. “You look at it as a space and it gives you everything you need: a strong central entrance, two side entrances, an upper level and a big space. You can do anything on that stage. Designers are so used to doing everything, but the Globe encourages you to strip all that away.”
In fact, the stage itself has seen the biggest shifts since construction, perhaps because it was the most significant conjecture. We still don’t know what sort of stage Shakespeare and co used. No blueprints exist, nor any evidence of the Globe’s interior. The best we’ve got is an ink sketch of the Swan Theatre, next door, by Johannes de Witt, which became the working model. It caused its own arguments. Peter Hall insisted the onstage pillars were wrong, demanding more acting space downstage and to the sides. Scholars disagreed, as did engineers. “If Peter Hall wants the heavens to fall in on him,” said the chair of the building’s advisory committee Andrew Gurr, “so be it.”
It has, however, given licence to designers in the years since. If the main structure is, superficially at least, a relatively stubborn and fixed space, its configuration is all but fixed; the stage offers possibilities. Designers have added extensions, wings and ramps – even erecting island platforms in the groundlings’ pit. All are subtle ways of challenging the architecture.
But the Globe, by its very nature, is always changing. Materials make it so. Timber and thatch, to a lesser extent lime plaster and brick, are organic materials and, as McCurdy says, “Organic materials are on a very slow degrading process – a bit like the half-life of isotopes.” The moment you cut ‘green’ timber, it starts – very slowly – drying out; a process that takes years and years. “It will have gotten slightly harder,” McCurdy explains. “It starts to stabilise and it tends to shrink.” Even by the time the building was being finished, four years after work began, some of the structure had shrunk slightly. Long cracks have since started to appear – harmless, but characterful.
‘The Globe, by its very nature, is always changing. The organic materials make it so’
The timber’s colour has changed too – in some places, unexpectedly so. “On the outside, it’s generally oxidised to that typical silver-grey you see on oak fence posts and gates. Inside, it’s gone hues of reddy-orangey-brown. There’s a wonderful gradation. As you look up, you get this change in colour from the bottom of the timbers, which are exposed to the weather and sun, to the underside of the thatch which aren’t.”
Parts of the water reed thatch have already been replaced – the ridges and valleys, one or two entire roof slopes. That’s just what happens with thatch but, McCurdy says, “What everyone’s discovered – and hadn’t perhaps predicted – is that something in London’s atmosphere, whether chemicals or pollution I don’t know, is causing the thatch to deteriorate rather faster than it would out in the countryside.” Rather than a 40-60 year lifespan, it’s half that in London. The timber, by contrast, is standing up fine, shrinkage, cracks and all. McCurdy’s confident of that: “I don’t see any reason it shouldn’t last for three or four hundred years.” And stepping inside will still be a thrill.
This post originally appeared as Twenty years on in the Autumn 2017 edition of Globe Magazine and is one of the benefits of being a Member at Shakespeare’s Globe.