Yesterday, the 23rd of April, was significant for many reasons. It was World Book Night, and I was a book giver again this year, handing out 20 copies of The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde to bemused commuters at my local tube station. It was also St George’s Day, the day of the patron saint of England (who never actually set foot on these shores), and was (as is rumoured) Shakespeare’s birthday (and deathday, too, but I don’t want to celebrate that).
As far as I was concerned the day was special for another reason – it was the first day of the new season at Shakespeare’s Globe. Located on the South Bank next to Tate Modern, the theatre is a modern reconstruction of the Globe of Shakespeare’s time and presents plays over the course of the summer (since the theatre is open to the elements, performances don’t take place in the winter). There couldn’t have been a better day for it – the sun shone brightly and the air was warm. Though I’d taken my coat in case it got cold during the evening performance, I didn’t need it, which is incredible considering it rarely remains warm at ten in the evening even at the height of summer.
The 2013 season has been given the name ‘Season of Plenty’, and the plays on offer this year include The Tempest, Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and touring productions of King Lear and The Taming of the Shrew (which will have short runs at the Globe in between their touring schedules). The three plays in the Henry VI cycle will be performed, often on the same day. Non-Shakespeare productions include a musical celebration called Gabriel, a story about the first female undergraduates at Cambridge named Blue Stockings, and an adaptation of Euripides’ The Bacchae entitled The Lightning Child.
I was so excited about the new season that I booked for the very first performance, which happened to be of The Tempest. I got the tube to St Paul’s after work and wandered down to the river. Crossing the Millennium Bridge, I saw the wonderful, welcoming Globe, familiar and exciting.
Inside, however, things have changed. In less than a year, the new indoor Jacobean theatre (the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse) will open on-site, and in preparation the foyer has been expanded. The coffee and cake stall that used to be next to the gift shop has moved downstairs, which has been developed into a larger seating area with picnic tables. This has freed up space for the shop to expand.
And what of the play itself? Well, this production of The Tempest is probably the best I’ve ever seen. Many of the varied characters, including Caliban and Gonzalo, were played by Globe regulars James Garnon and Pip Donaghy who always deliver strong performances. Roger Allam made a superb Prospero, and Jessie Buckley and Joshua James were excellent as the young lovers Miranda and Ferdinand. I usually find Ariel an incredibly annoying character, but Colin Morgan’s (Merlin in the BBC drama of the same name) portrayal made him sympathetic and multi-dimensional. The production was a largely traditional one, employing simple costumes and props of the kind likely to have been seen four hundred years ago. This focused attention on the rich dialogue, which took on new layers of meaning when spoken in front of the Globe’s rapt and close-up audience. The storm that opens the play was evoked with metal sheets and other loud instruments, which were actually more effective than the bells and whistles of more modern productions with years of technology at their disposal.
Never mind the temperature or the number of flowers in the park: for me, the beginning of summer is signified by the opening of the Globe, and if last night’s performance is anything to go by, it’s going to be a good one.