Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The space that embraces Shakespeare

The new season has opened at Shakespeare's Globe theatre in London with Hamlet, As You Like It, All's Well that Ends Well and Much Ado About Nothing. This year, the Globe is also celebrating the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible - the work that, along with the plays of William Shakespeare - profoundly influenced English language and culture. And anything that affects language, of course, affects theater, as the Globe shows with the title of its season brochure: The Word Is God.

Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, London

Last summer, I saw a spectacular production of the two parts of Henry IV, but my first encounter with the Globe was in 2005. Before curtain time (which really is a metaphorical phrase, as the proscenium stage was a later development), I walked around that miraculous building, a testament to one man's vision and mused as to how few could have predicted the meshing of man, vision and place. Sam Wanamaker worked steadily as an actor, director and producer in stage, films and television and once played Iago to Paul Robeson's Othello (no small change), but he wasn't Laurence Olivier or John Gielgud. Not only that, he was an American ... from Chicago ... son of a Jewish tailor with the family name of Watmacher. And he wanted to recreate Shakespeare's theater on the site where it once stood on the South Bank of London, now a bustling urban center. He began the project in 1970 and the theater was opened in 1997 - four years after his death. You go there now, it seems as if it's always been there.

On that first encounter, the play was The Winter's Tale. I hadn't read it in awhile, so I boned up on the plane and brought the text to the theater, since the performance was in daylight. A lifetime of theatergoing seemed to coalesce as the story of the jealous king Leontes and his wise wife Hermione began. The production was perfectly accessible, the acting engaging, the action clear, the words understandable.

I had the text open in my lap and at intermission, the man seated next to me asked me a question about the play's action. It was apparent he wasn't an experienced theatergoer and he said this was the first time he'd seen a Shakespeare play. "What do you think?" I asked. He looked around the theater a second - the thatched roof, the people in the balconies, the groundlings standing in front of the stage - then looked down at the stage. "It's very powerful, isn't it?" he answered.

Thank you, Sam. Thank you, unlikely dreamers, for letting two people sit in the air in their balcony seats 400 years later and be enthralled by the God-inspired words of William Shakespeare.         

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