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Thursday 30th October 2008
Book Review | SHAKESPEARE'S GLOBE: A Theatrical Experiment by Christie Carson & Farah Karim-Cooper | pub. Cambridge University Press

None of us seriously believed that it might attract big crowds. The most clear-sighted objective any of us had was to get the replica of Shakespeare’s Globe as right as we could, so that we could then see what might be done with it. Andrew Gurr, Professor Emeritus at the University of Reading

Over four hundred years after it was closed down in an act of Commonwealth fundamentalist pique, Shakespeare’s Globe re-opened near its original site on London’s Bankside. Sam Wanamaker’s initial vision to reconstruct the Globe has, despite certain original and understandable doubts from many of those involved, led to the creation of a major London tourist landmark drawing over 750,000 visitors through its doors every year. The ‘replica’ Globe has become nothing less than a national institution, attracting Andy Gurr’s unexpectedly ‘big crowds’ in their droves.

Calling on the collaborative skills of actors, educationalists, designers and scholars, Cambridge University Press have published a fascinating survey of the first decade of the new Globe’s existence called Shakespeare's Globe: A Theatrical Experiment. Incorporating the first-ever study of the important role of Globe Education for the life-blood of this venture, Shakespeare's Globe shows this landmark venue not only attracting traditional theatregoers eager to see the latest Globe production, but also acting as an invaluable resource for teachers seeking to ignite a passion for Renaissance drama in a new audience of young (or not-so-young) visitors.

Mark Rylance, the first artistic director of the Globe and an actor who graced its stage for the first ten years, adds his own distinctive and authoritative voice to the book. Likewise, other members of his artistic team explain the processes which led to their creative and pedagogic decisions, most notably the indomitable Patrick Spottiswoode, founder and director of Globe Education. Edited by Christie Carson (Senior Lecturer in the Department of English at Royal Holloway University of London) and Farah Karim-Cooper (Head of Courses and Research in Globe Education), Shakespeare's Globe provides an insight into the novelty, and occasional controversy, of forging a new theatre space on the South Bank of London’s Thames, far from the traditional stomping ground of regular theatregoers.

Although, as Carson and Karim-Cooper admit in their Introduction, the book’s main focus is to re-establish a ‘dialogue between the scholar and the practitioner’, it is certainly no cold academic study. Instead, Shakespeare's Globe provides a glorious insight into the Globe itself and all those people who have made it so successful. It helps for us, the general reading public, to realise that when the book refers to ‘practitioners’, it is, of course, talking about those actors and directors and designers who put the performances onstage and who present the plays in all their lively glory. ‘Practitioner’ is a handy academic term to separate the scholarly ‘brains’ from the theatrical ‘brawn’. That said, there has always been a heavy bias towards the practical aspect of Globe research, with the regular interplay between actor and academic an unusual and fruitful relationship which has developed along mutually supportive and respectful lines. Hence the Globe’s relevance both as an academic resource for the study of Shakespeare and his contemporaries, and as a site for presenting twenty-first-century drama on its Elizabethan-inspired stage.

Shakespeare’s Globe has, as its editors suggest, three main aims as a book. Firstly, to assess what exactly the Globe’s famously ‘practical approach’ to Renaissance culture has contributed to our understanding of the period, whether as scholars or as theatregoers. Secondly, to judge how the creative practices which developed during this first decade of Globe performances assist the work of teachers and researchers. Thirdly, to consider what has been learned in ‘concrete’ terms from the bringing of Shakespeare’s plays – these dramatic objects of our fast-disappearing past – into the Globe of the present.

Shakespeare's Globe engages with these questions by commenting on what, for many, was the most significant decision of its original artistic team: to approach Shakespeare under an ‘Original Practices’ remit, performing the plays with as much attention to period detail as humanly (and historically) possible. A whole section of the book is dedicated to the ‘Original Practices’ ideal, discussing the development of and attitudes to ‘Stage Action’, ‘Stage Appearance’, ‘Music and Sound’ and ‘Actor/Audience Relations’ with those most closely involved. We hear from actors and costume designers, musicians and directors, all telling their individual tales and exploring their individual experiences. For anyone who wants really to understand the workings of a theatre, this book will enthrall.

Having engaged with the technical aspect of performing plays, Shakespeare's Globe then explores the role of the Globe project as the most innovative and original educational resource not to receive Arts Council funding. Education and research have, from the Globe’s inception, been fundamental aspects of its strength and development. Under the chiasmic chapter-heading of ‘Research in Practice/Practice in Research’, Shakespeare's Globe describes the history of its educational outreach experiments whilst determining its future way forward. Again, this does not make for cold reading for the committed educationalist; rather, it gives the opportunity for those passionate about the Globe project to excite and enthuse us about what they have achieved so far and how much there is yet to come.

Finally, an afterword by the academic Gordon McMullan relates his personal realisation that the Globe represents ‘not a recovery of things lost but a genuine, even an authentic, invention.’ It is the very inventiveness of this fascinating project, and the first decade of its existence as a part of London’s theatrical and educational scene, which is gloriously celebrated in this lovely book. Shakespeare's Globe: A Theatrical Experiment will appeal to all who have enjoyed performances at the Globe and who wish to understand more fully the way the theatre approaches its plays. It will, of course, also appeal to an academic audience, but this is certainly no cold, scholarly text. Sumptuous colour photographs of actors in period costume adorn its pages, reinvigorating memories of performances past. After reading this wonderful book, the true extent of the dedication and commitment of those who first saw, and continue to see, the potential of this Bankside resource comes shining through. A fitting tribute and one which should grace any theatre-lover’s bookshelves.

© Kevin Quarmby 2008

  • Shakespeare's Globe: A Theatrical Experiment by Christie Carson and Farah Karim-Cooper. Published 28 October 2008, Cambridge University Press.

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