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Performing at the Globe
James N. Loehlin

I recently had the extreme good fortune to do a one-week residency at Shakespeare's Globe in London, rehearsing and performing in the First Quarto version of Hamlet with the University of Texas Shakespeare at Winedale Program. Our experience there, working in the theatre and watching the Globe company perform, taught us much about the staging challenges of an Elizabethan playhouse, as well as the invigorating possibilities of such a stage for actors and audiences.

The First Quarto Hamlet project was set up by James B. Ayres, of the University of Texas at Austin, and Patrick Spottiswoode, of the Globe Education department. The Globe, which opened two years ago, was intended to function both as a theatre for professional performances and as a laboratory for learning. Accordingly, Spottiswoode invited Ayres, a Texas English professor, to bring some of his students to work on the 1603 First Quarto, the earliest published version of Hamlet. The First Quarto, or Q1, is probably an actor's memorial reconstruction of the play as adapted for performance, and its lean, fast-paced text seemed a good choice for exploring the staging possibilities of the Globe. After performing the play once at Winedale on August 15, Ayres' twelve students came to London for a week of work at the Globe, culminating in a performance for an invited audience on August 31. I had been associate director of Shakespeare at Winedale for the summer, and was added to the Hamlet company in London to take on the role of the Ghost.

Shakespeare at Winedale is an English department summer program, founded by Ayres twenty-eight years ago, wherein students explore Shakespeare through an intensive experience of performance. A group of students from all disciplines, graduate and undergraduate, many with no previous performance experience, produce three plays in repertory, with only five weeks of preparation. The theatre is a nineteenth-century German barn in the Texas countryside, with heavy timber beams and hayloft galleries that make it remarkably like the Globe in structure and ambience. The performance principles at Winedale correspond roughly to those of the Elizabethan theatre. A bare stage, daylight performances, continuous action, direct contact with the audience, and an emphasis on actor and text are all basic to both Winedale and the Globe. Accordingly, Ayres and I were eager to learn how our work over the summer would translate to the reconstructed Globe, and what we could learn by the process.

The principal difference between Winedale's Theatre Barn and the Globe, and one that gave us considerable apprehension, is one of scale. The 43-foot wide stage of the Globe is about eight times the size of that of the Barn; the audience capacity is also much greater. The stage at the Barn is flanked by pillars, but they are square cedar posts of perhaps eight inches on a side; the Globe pillars are massive oak columns at least three feet wide at the base, and placed squarely in the sightlines of much of the audience. The Barn's balcony is perhaps seven feet above stage level, and easily reached by two onstage staircases; the Globe's is much higher, partly closed off by pillars and railings, and accessible only by a single backstage ladder. Finally, the Barn's stage is only a foot off the ground, and surrounded by a seated audience, while the Globe's is at least five feet above the yard in which the groundlings stand.

While the Hamlet company had done some previous work in larger spaces, working in the Globe itself was necessarily a major adjustment. During the week of preparation, we worked in the space from 5:30-9:30 in the mornings, returning later in the day to see the Globe Company in performance. The productions we saw all gave different clues as to how the space and the actor/audience interaction might be exploited.

A Mad World, My Masters was directed by RSC movement coach Sue Lefton, who took an aggressive approach to the stage's sightline problems by using energetic and virtually ceaseless movement. The two halves of the performance began and ended with actors and musicians striding purposefully about the stage in patterns that sometimes seemed random but effectively mirrored the bustle and haste of this vigorous comedy. Anastasia Hille, as the mother of a sly courtesan, wound around the stage in sweeping loops and figure-eights as she schemed her daughter's marriage. The ne'erdowell Dick Follywit and his companions jogged, leaned, sat, and flung themselves about in the widest variety of positions and attitudes as they plotted against his uncle Sir Bounteous Progress. As played by Jonathan Cecil, Sir Bounteous was the still center of this hurricane of intrigue, moving and speaking with restraint, and scarcely gesturing at all. The other stasis in the production came of necessity from the scenes set on or around Mrs. Harebrain's bed. These represented a version of what Robert Weimann has identified as locus staging, wherein a large fixed property like a throne, placed at the center back of the stage, gives a sense of specific and unchanging time and place. The problems with this sort of staging were immediately clear, in that the actors on the bed were hidden by the pillars from a good portion of the audience. Lefton dealt with the prblem as well as she could by ensuring that there was always some focus of attention away from the bed. In the scene where Penitent Brothel is tempted by a succubus in the form of Mrs. Harebrain, Lefton began the scene on the bed and quickly had the actors move all around it, keeping the stage picture as active and dynamic as possible.

While A Mad World, with its boisterous cony-catching plot, worked well in the vigorous style Lefton chose, the two Shakespeare plays presented different challenges. As You Like It explored two other avenues--the use of the yard, and the attempt at intimacy and naturalism on the stage itself. The former project was facilitated by the erection of temporary stairs at the front of the stage, allowing the actors to move down among the groundlings. The wrestling scene, Orlando's wanderings with Adam, the driving of Oliver into exile--all were effective, if historically unlikely, uses of the yard. In other scenes, the use of the yard seemed rather arbitrary and unhelpful, as when Corin was swallowed by the crowd while venturing to and from his woodpile in the scene with Touchstone. Further, the expansiveness of these staging gimmicks seemed slightly contradicted by some of the tendencies in the acting, particularly of Anastasia Hille as Rosalind. Hille is an actress of remarkable presence, and is physically tall and striking, but her tendency in performance is toward intimacy. By contrast to her peripatetic Mother in A Mad World, her Rosalind tended toward stillness, often kneeling or sitting in very close proximity to Celia or Orlando, and speaking her lines so quietly that I wondered whether those in the galleries could hear. Her oddly fractured speech rhythms I found sometimes infuriating but always compelling; like Mark Rylance, the Globe artistic director, she is an actor with the power to make an audience lean forward and listen. While her drawling, lilting, emotionally naked voice often held the audience in pin-drop stillness, it seemed to me that a Globe cast can't afford too many performers like her and Rylance. While the same company of actors, in A Mad World, had managed a consistently high level of verbal energy, in As You Like It each character seemed to be in his or her own vocal world. A soft-spoken, naturalistic Orlando, a declamatory French Celia, a painfully measured, show-stopping Jaques from John McEnery, a pair of regal Dukes from David Rintoul whose ringing lines seemed twice as loud as those of the rest of the cast--these characters seemed to have come to Arden from different plays. As You Like It is indeed a more varied and nuanced play than A Mad World, but such variety in the treatment of voice, language and movement challenged the audience's ability to grasp, or even perceive, the play in any coherent way.

The Merchant of Venice was rumored to be a highly problematic experiment in actor/audience interaction, in which the crowd was led into booing and baiting Shylock in a disturbingly unselfconscious way. By the time I saw it, at least, the production was fairly sanitized, the anti-semitism cut or downplayed, and the audience chastened and subdued, at least in the Shylock scenes. The production did engage the crowd, but mostly during breaks in the action, through the spirited entr'acte foolery of the brilliant clown Marcello Magni, of Theatre de Complicite, who played Launcelot Gobbo. The primary reaction to the Shylock story, on behalf of both actors and audience, seemed to be one of embarrassment. The one moment where the production did try to engage with the audience was that of Shylock's forced conversion to Christianity. When he heard of Antonio's demand, Shylock fell melodramatically to the stage, drawing an audience laugh; he then leapt up and glowered balefully at the crowd, instantly silencing them. The moment had some impact, but it smacked slightly of bad faith, in that it seemed to me that the laugh was actively drawn, either deliberately or through bad acting, by the almost comic excess of Shylock's sudden gesture. The audience shouldn't have laughed, to be sure: but I suspect that the director and actors would have been vexed with them if they hadn't. The moment called attention to the transactional nature of actor/audience relations, especially in a theatre like the Globe: each party wants and expects something from the other, and it is difficult to change the terms of this contract suddenly during a performance.

I should add that I stood for the first two plays, and that I began watching The Merchant from one of the galleries, but found this so unsatisfying that I soon moved down into the yard. Not only was my view obstructed by one of the pillars, but I felt much less connected to the performance than I had while standing. One of the great virtues of the Globe is that it allows performers and audiences to experience the very different dynamic that is at work when the audience is standing, and in full light. A standing spectator cannot lapse into bored daydreaming: he or she must engage with the performance or leave. Likewise, actors cannot ignore an audience they're looking right at, and they can't allow standing spectators too much time to reflect on their own discomfort. I liked The Merchant of Venice the least of the three productions, but I certainly got more out of it when I moved down among the groundlings.

For Hamlet we had only one semi-public performance, so we didn't have much time to experiment with actor/audience interaction. Most of our work focused on adjusting to the size and configuration of the stage. The acoustics of the theatre turned out to be better than we had anticipated--better, indeed, than the Barn, where performers are constantly fighting the drone of industrial-sized cooling fans. A certain level of vocal energy had to be maintained throughout--we constantly chided Hamlet for dropping the final syllables of words and lines--but it was not difficult to make oneself heard. The size of the auditorium did force us, unconsciously, to slow our speech; when we first ran through the play we found we had added fifteen minutes to it, only some of which time could be accounted for by the greater distance covered in entrances and exits. Since we wanted to bring Q1 across as a play of speed, surprise and danger-- "Hamlet with the brakes off," as Ayres characterized it--we made a conscious effort to keep the pace as fast as possible, given the different vocal and physical demands of the theatre. In the end the production ran perhaps six or seven minutes longer than it had at Winedale.

The mechanics of the stage did not present us too many problems; Winedale, like the Globe, has two upstage doors that must be opened and closed for entrances and exits, as well as a central, curtained "inner stage." However, we had been accustomed, at Winedale, to making entrances through the house, which would have been impossible without the As You Like It stairs, and which Globe historian Andrew Gurr had definitively told us was not historically accurate staging. Patterns of movement, accordingly, became quite important, particularly in scenes where several entrances and exits followed hard upon one another. Any scene change requiring actors to "exeunt severally" necessitated the use of the central curtain as an entrance for the next scene.

The scale of the stage initially daunted us, and actors tended to clump together for support, thus closing out much of the audience. When we called their attention to it, they overreacted, with the King and Gertred, for instance, playing a two-handed scene from opposite ends of the stage, a good forty feet apart. It became evident to us that Q1, with its stripped-down cast, was better suited to a touring performance in a manor hall than to the great stage of the Globe, where a swelling scene of lavishly-costumed court extras would have helped colonize the vast space. But we began to develop a sense of optimum distances, and frequency and scale of movement, that helped us make the stage our own.

Avoiding sightline problems with the pillars proved more formidable, since the obvious solution, occasionally used by the Globe company--to play everything in the six-foot strip along the front of the stage--was so plainly unsatisfying and counter to the principles of the theatre. Constantly shifting triangular or diagonal arrangements, with frequent trips out beyond the pillars to take in the side audiences, seemed the best solutions to the pillar problem. We flirted with the idea of letting the pillars shape the space quite dramatically by creating "corridors" at the sides of the stage down which entrances would be made, the actors then sweeping sharply back up into the playing area between the pillars. In the end, this proved distracting and time-wasting for all but the most formal scenes, and we mostly used more dynamic diagonal entrances. In general terms, we approached stage movement and business in terms of the demands of a given scene, rather than trying to set up particular conventions. The doors, for instance, sometimes were opened from backstage, sometimes by the actors. The Ghost could glide out through a mysteriously opened portal, whereas the mad Ofelia slammed into the heavy oak door, then shoved it open to run offstage. Similarly, as the Ghost I sometimes became visible to the characters as soon as I came in the door, sometimes only when I had passed the pillar and entered a particular scene. One thing we learned early is that the Globe necessitates pragmatic rather than programmatic solutions to staging problems: on a stage which turns, unaltered, from battlements to bedchamber, consistency is never an issue.

My own scenes as the Ghost allowed an exploration of the full scope of the Globe stage. In my first appearance to the frightened soldiers, I entered on the balcony, then exited again within twelve lines, to reappear on the stage below. In the scene with Hamlet, Horatio and the guards, I moved slowly around the edge of the stage, within a few feet of the audience. This proximity, in awkward armor, heavy makeup, and full daylight, made me feel singularly unethereal; the terror of the scene had to be created less by my presence than by the reactions of the other performers. The exchange with Hamlet we played in the middle of the stage, though keeping a good distance between us; once in rehearsal I grabbed Hamlet's hand, but this gesture, which felt startling and powerful to us, was small and weak in the vast empty space. Bearing in mind the size of the house, I initially went at the Ghost's big speech in full-throated ferocity. I wanted to be really frightening and physically imposing, but at the same time to have some form of human contact with Hamlet. This kind of intimacy proved easier to achieve in the rehearsal room than on the Globe stage, but as we got used to the space I felt able to introduce some notes of paternal tenderness, especially in the final adieus.

My favorite part of the role was the scene in which Hamlet, aided by the Ghost, swears his companions to secrecy: here I was able to follow exactly the Q1 stage direction, "The Gost vnder the stage." The Globe's "sellerige" is much as it might have been in the original theatre, a musty, dirty, cramped crawl space, a dark labyrinth of beams and brick. The planking on the sides and surface of the stage is loosely-spaced enough that I could see light from above, and my voice could carry out into the yard. Unlike an actor below the traps of a traditional modern stage, I still felt that I was in the theatre, rather than under it. As I scuttled about, "Hic & vbique," my repeated cries of "Sweare" were localized enough to account for the consternation of Hamlet and his fellows, yet boomed and echoed into the house in a way that was suitably sepulchral. It was immensely pleasing to me to imagine Shakespeare, who according to long-standing tradition played the Ghost, ducking and scurrying around in a similar fashion, terrifying and delighting the Elizabethan audience.

The literal faithfulness with which we were able to present "The Gost vnder the stage" was one of the most satisfying things about working in the Globe. Again and again we found lines and moments that seemed to connect directly with the theatrical space we were in, and the cosmic, metaphysical space it represented. When Hamlet told Rossencraft, "This great world you see contents me not,/ No nor the spangled heauens," he was able, with his gesture, to take in the great Globe itself, and point to the gilded stars of the "heavens," the majestical roof overhanging the stage. The heaven the King prays to, and the hell Hamlet consigns him to, were literal realities for us, figured in the very architecture of the building. It was this sense of the rightness of the space, the congruity of these words and actions with this physical world, that was perhaps the most valuable lesson of our time in the Globe. I had had my doubts about the Globe ever since I saw the initial, unsatisfactory Two Gentlemen of Verona in the prologue season of 1996; the stage was too big, the atmosphere to artificial, the actors unable to cope with the physical demands of the building. Yet striding onto that stage, feeling the embrace of those galleries, hearing the ringing clarity with which the wooden O gave us back Shakespeare's words (or some of them, in the case of Q1)--this experience convinced me of the value of the Globe, not only as a theatre but as a testing ground for our ideas about what Shakespearean performance was, and can be.

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