Shakespeare

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Three nights at the theater

Two nights in London last month; one night in Austin last year. The performances in London inspired me to share them all with you. Each was fabulous in its own way and wonderfully relevant for both of my series, the Elizabethan and the Victorian. The theaters themselves were a big part of the fun.

The theaters

The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

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The minstrel gallery by candlelight

This is the indoor theater at Shakespeare’s Globe in London (another experience to put on your bucket list.) The SWP is a recreation of a 17th-century theater, loosely modeled on Blackfriars Theatre, which was possibly the first indoor theater in England.

The Blackfriars Theatre was opened in 1596, over the objections of Francis Bacon’s aunt, Lady Elizabeth Russell. I’ve blogged about her before and probably will again. There’s a great book about this conflict: Laoutaris, Chris. 2015. Shakespeare and the Countess: The Battle that Gave Birth to the Globe. London: Penguin Books.

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Note the dress-up hiking clothes. The guy in the black suit works there.

The Wanamaker Playhouse is lovely, lovely, lovely. It’s an intimate space, very vertical so you look down onto the projecting stage. The actors use all the space, often emerging from the stalls or the aisles, sometimes sitting next to a startled — and delighted — person in the audience. It officially holds 340 people. I guessed 150, which shows you how bad I am at guessing quantities. We sit on lightly padded benches with barely enough room for purses under our knees. There’s a cloakroom, so you don’t have to bring your layers in with you.

People were not dressed up, in case you’re wondering. Standard costume seemed to be what I call dress-up hiking clothes, which all tourists seem to wear everywhere nowadays.

Scottish Rite Theater

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Scottish Rite Theater from the parking lot

I have lived in Austin since 1974, and I didn’t know about this theater until a local writer pal recommended this particular performance on her Facebook page. Ya think ya know a place…

The theater was built in 1871, so I have no excuse, though t is unassuming on the outside. It started out as a German opera house, then became the home of Scottish Rite Masons, who created the non-profit theater in 2004. They mostly host children’s plays, which look hugely fun. The Victorian reproduction I saw was an unusual event I sincerely hope they’ll repeat. 

Marlowe by candlelight

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Before the play begins: Edward I’s coffin

This was amazing, and it took me by surprise, even though they say on the SWP website where I bought my ticket that plays are performed by candlelight. This is as close to the Elizabethan experience at Blackfriars as I’ll ever get. If I’d been wearing period garb, I would’ve taken up two spaces instead of one, but the usher told me that Blackfriars Theater was much bigger, so there would’ve been more room.

The candles weren’t just lighting at SWP; they became part of the performance. We started out fully lit, with two big candelabras hanging over the stage and lots of candles in sconces on the pillars in front of the stalls and the musician’s gallery. The gallery stayed lit throughout, but as the play turned to the dark side, actors lowered the candelabras whilst delivering a thoughtful monologue and snuffed out the candles. Spooky!

Then later another actor lit a few of them again. During some impassioned scenes on the floor of the stage, an actor would take a sconce from a pillar and hold it to illuminate their faces. Once or twice toward the end, actors came out with a basket of candles to set at the front of the stage. Footlights!

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The floor, designed for Edward II, though this pic was taken before Edward I

One thing I wouldn’t have thought of just from pictures and floor plans: the theater grew cooler as they put out more candles. The Swedish lady sitting next to me and I were quite chilly! That’s exactly the sort of detail that makes a whole trip worthwhile.

The play was Edward II, by Christopher Marlowe. I’ve blogged about him before and will again. This play is dark and grim, like all of Kit’s plays. This one was first performed in 1592. It just occurred to me that I will definitely blog about this play again next year, when I publish Now and Then Stab, which will be the 7th book in the Francis Bacon mystery series. That title is a quote from Ed II. That ticket was tax-deductible in all directions :-).

The performance I saw in February consolidated several characters and cut several scenes that didn’t carry the central conflict. The result was a play more about prejudice than about favoritism; a modern perspective. Marlowe balanced the two. In a nutshell: King Edward had a favorite, a lover named Gaveston. He showered money and titles on this upstart, neglecting his queen, the other noblemen, and his subjects. Naturally, this caused resentment, also distaste for the unnatural relationship between the two men. Nobles remonstrated Edward; he refused to mend his ways. So they rebelled and ultimately murdered him. Gaveston dies too, of course.

Apart from re-aligning the major theme, the alterations kept the show down to two hours. Which I appreciated, because it was cold as the dickens that night and I had to walk about 6 blocks to the tube station. Safe as houses, though. Even this old Houston girl felt comfortable (apart from the cold) walking those well-lit streets. Next time, I’ll bring a sweater in addition to my raincoat.

Actors turn a hash into a feast

Sunday night’s fun was a “reading” of George Peele’s play, Famous Chronicle of Edward the First. This was published in 1593, so it must have been performed sometime before that. Before or after Marlowe’s hit play, I wonder?

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The minstrel gallery. For Edward II, they had brilliant musicians playing a variety of period instruments.

I downloaded The Works of George Peele, edited by A. H. Bullen (Boston: Houghton Mifflin and Company, 1888) to read on my phone whilst riding the tube hither and tither that day. Don’t we love the internet and the kindly people who scanned these classic works to make available through Google Books? (We don’t thank Google because they rarely acknowledge the librarians who preserved, catalogued, and scanned these works for us.)

I actually never got past the introduction, which is excellent; very informative. Recommended, especially when you’re stuck waiting in line or somewhere like a subway where you can’t get a signal. At some point I jotted down this quote to share with you, because it is the perfect description of that wacky hodge-podge of a play. Bullen said, “It is tiresome, windy, bombastical stuff, but it held the stage.”

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More of the amazing ceiling.

Only because the actors were so enthusiastic about what amounted to an improvisation of a long dead and quite terrible play. They performed in street clothes with highlighted sheafs of paper in their hands. They’d had a read-through earlier that day — their entire acquaintance with the play. I had expected this reading to be a scholarly, somewhat dry event. I grossly underestimated the talent, inventiveness, and spirit of the London actor!!

Edward was played by Jason Hughes, who played DS Jones on Midsomer Murders. He was totally convincing as the imperious king, and the rest of the cast was equally delightful. They climbed all over that theater, using the whole space. They had minimal props like a crown or a bench, which they carried in and out as needed. Electric lights were on and it was always fairly bright. The usher told me that actors love these readings, because it’s only a day’s commitment, but they get to really exercise their acting skills in the company of a little group of equally engaged colleagues.

The play is dreadful as literature, but Bullen was right: it held the stage, meaning it was entertaining. It’s like a song hits of the 1590s. Here we have a scene where a messenger delivers troublesome news to the king. Then later, for no discernible reason, Evil Isabel the Queen poisons somebody (the king? her son? I can’t remember) by pouring poison in his ear. (Hm, we wonder who else saw this play back in 1592?) The next scene bears no relation to what came before or what comes after, but it was fun, in and of itself. This is what you get when you write without a theme.

The plot is ridiculous and the set speeches the very definition of bombastical. But the actors were having so much fun, we did too. We laughed and laughed! Perhaps not the effect George Peele was looking for, but if he was a typically pragmatic Elizabethan, he would have shrugged and said, “It likes me well enough.”

Boo! Hiss! The Victorian experience

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Scottish Rite Theater, from their website

The Hidden Room Theater calls itself “A theatrical curiosity shop in Austin, TX. We make time machines.” And that’s all I can find out in a general way. They’re not a place; they’re a group who now and then conjures up a unique theatrical experience.

The one I got to enjoy was a performance of Shakespeare’s Richard III. The script and staging were taken from the original book of John Wilkes Booth. Yes, you read that correctly! So this was a 21st-century recreation of a Victorian production of a Jacobean play. Pure experiential ambrosia for a writer of historical fiction set in those periods!

The Beth Burns, the director, spoke to us at the start of the play to explain a bit of the context. She encouraged us to enter into the recreation by performing the role of a good Victorian audience. We should boo, she said, and also hiss, and call out things like “He’s lying!” or “Look out!”

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The dastardly Richard III, from Austinot.

It was a riot. Nobody must ever have fallen asleep at the theater in Victorian times. You’re too busy participating!

Judd Farris played Richard. He also played us like a well-tuned violin. He would creep out onto the stage, sort of hidden from the other actors by the curtain, and grimace at us with his hunchbacked wickedness gleaming in his eyes. We would hiss and boo and stamp our feet. That just made him all the more wicked!!! We cried “Kill him! Kill him!” and eventually they did. We cheered lustily.

I am longing for them to do this again with another play. Any other play. The worst play from the 19th century would be an evening of great entertainment in these people’s clever hands.

Sorry I don’t have pictures of the actual performances. But only a barbarian — or a theater critic — takes photographs during a play.

Pix & notes: The Globe theater

I’ve been to two plays at Shakespeare’s Globe: The Tempest and Macbeth. Extraordinary, delightful, exceptional, memorable experiences, both times. I can’t recommend it too highly!

This wooden O: the Globe

Before 1576, when James Burbage built the Theatre for the sole purpose of staging plays, you enjoyed your theatrical performances in the home of a wealthy patron, the dining hall of your college, or the yard of common inn. I always think of that particular venue must have been like watching a performance of Our Town or Grease in the parking lot of a motel. Fun, if not very comfortable, and it must have been a beast for the actors.

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White Hart, Southwark

The Burbage had his brainstorm and built that round wooden building in Shoreditch, north of London’s city walls. That location was judiciously chosen. It’s nothing to walk up Bishopsgate, past the Dolphin and Bedlam Hospital — ten minutes if there’s a mad throng out of doors that day. But the City authorities have little to say about what goes on out here, so you have a better chance of putting on the show you want.

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Richard Burbage

The Theatre was so successful, other theaters were soon built. First the Curtain, also in Shoreditch, then Rose in Southwark. Then James’s son Richard formed a syndicate, so to speak, of actors in the Lord Chamberlain’s Company to build the Globe in Southwark. It was to be used exclusively by Lord Chamberlain’s Company. One of those actors was William Shakespeare, who made far more money from his shares in the building than he ever did as a writer. That proportion of return is still true today. 

The original Globe was built in 1599 and destroyed by fire in 1613. It was rebuilt in 1614, but closed by an ordinance of the Long Parliament in 1642. “The order cited the current “times of humiliation” and their incompatibility with “public stage-plays”, representative of “lascivious Mirth and Levity.” And sorry, y’all, but I do not have the attentional capacity to read about the Long Parliament today!

Raised from the ashes

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Sam Wanamaker

So, the Globe was closed. It was a wooden building, mostly open to the elements. It wouldn’t have taken long to fall apart. It vanished, as far as we’re concerned, until an American actor and director named Sam Wanamaker became possessed by the desire to recreate the original theater, as close to its original location as possible. The man was nothing if not persistent. He established a trust, raised millions of dollars, and got the job done. It’s as authentic as anything can be, right down to the hand-whittled pegs that hold the walls together. Hats off, Mr. Wanamaker, wherever you are!

I also recommend the guided tour — more work for off-duty actors — which I think you can do any time of year. It’s fascinating, the whole story, of how they figured out what to build and where and how, scavenging old materials and re-learning lost crafts. Really a monumental effort and a testament to our love of Shakespeare and drama and great acting and all of it.

An incomparable experience

If you ever get to go to London during the season, do not miss the chance to see a play at the Globe. They do lots of things besides Shakespeare, but see a Shakespeare play. It’s so much fun! You’ll never forget it. I’m not a big theater-goer, though I always love it and wish I would go more, so perhaps this is commonplace — but I doubt it. I think the Globe is special, both for audience and actors, especially when the play is one of Will’s. Book that seat as far ahead as you possibly can. Go by yourself or with a crowd — just go. And lunch in the cafe first, because they have very stylish sandwiches.

I’ve been twice, to see The Tempest and Macbeth. Both times I booked in February for a late summer performance and got great seats in the second level of the gallery. Wear sunscreen! You’re not far from the stage anywhere in the Globe, really. It feels small, intimate, immediate. The groundlings — the people who stand up in the big space in front of the stage — are usually busloads of high school students these days, not smelly peasants. No pix, no snacks, so no throwing of hazelnut shells and apple cores. You don’t need to worry about people taking a piss at the end of your row anymore, either.

But you can expect interaction between actors and audience. That’s part of the fun. One of the greenest members of the cast was clearly fascinated by the audience and seemed to enjoy us as much as we enjoyed him. Now of course I can’t remember who he played and I’m not finding it by swiftly searching. He was one of the Scottish noblemen, possibly MacDuff. At one point he’s wondering where Donalbain has gone, I think — Duncan’s son. He asks his questions of the groundlings, looking them right in the eye. One of them is so overcome by the force of the questions, he cried, “I got nothing for you, man!” We all laughed.

That would’ve been better if I remembered the lines. But go yourselves, and come back with a better story. Here are a few photographs to whet your appetites.

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