"I'M SORRY, YOU CAN'T GO TO THE LOO before the queen arrives," says the usher. You don't hear that on Broadway. Last week the theater officially called Globe had its gala opening in London. Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip arrived in true Elizabethan fashion-by royal barge on the Thames. The reconstruction of the sacred shrine of English theater, the original Globe built in 1599, took four years and cost $18 million. Mark Rylance, the 36-year-old artistic director of the Globe company, called the theater "revolutionary."
There's no doubt the new Globe:is a marvel of research and craftsmanship. It's the second coming of Shakespeare's famous "wooden O." The theater is open to the sky and enclosed by a 20-sided polygon of green oak, plastered with ground limestone and goat's hair; it boasts the first thatched roof in London since the Great Fire of 1666. The original Globe burned down in 1613 and was rebuilt, only to be closed in 1642 by Oliver Cromwell's party-pooper Puritan government and later dismantled. The new theater is a splendid and emotionally moving structure. But can a revolution take place in a reproduction of a 400-year-old theater?
Time will tell. Last week nearly 1,000 people seated on benches in three covered galleries--and 500 "groundlings" standing in front of the stage-saw chunks of theGlobe's first two productions, "Henry V" and "The Winter's Tale." "Henry" was directed by Richard Olivier, Laurence's son. It seemed as if he and Rylance, who played Henry, were trying for the antithesis of Laurence Olivier's great 1944 film of"Henry V," with its triumphal jingoism. Rylance gave the St. Crispin speech before the battle of Agincourt with a prayerlike humility--the opposite of Olivier's thrilling, cannon-voiced delivery. David Freeman's staging of "Winter's Tale" conjured up the magic and myth in this fable of jealousy redeemed and love reborn.
Richard Olivier, 85, is an experienced director, but amazingly "Henry" is his first Shakespeare. He admits he felt overshadowed by his titanic father: "I was deliberately avoiding Shakespeare for 10 years as a director." He identifies with the Henry story because it's like his own, "the young son stepping out from his father's shadow to pursue his own destiny." That destiny includes his Theatre of Leadership, in which he conducts workshops for businessmen, having them "act out Shakespearean roles to explore different themes in the workplace." Just imagine a tycoon invoking St. Crispin before mounting a hostile takeover. Still, there's a bracing idealism about the entire Globe team. Rylance senses "a mysterious harmony, where the characters speak to the audience and the audience brings their own passion." The open theater creates an open audience, responding with cheers, hisses, even wolf whistles.
This ancient tradition owes its rebirth to an American, the actor Sam Wanamaker. A target of the '50s blacklist for his leftist views, he moved to England and was amazed that the only remnant of the Globe was a blackened plaque near the Southwark Bridge. He spent the rest of his life crusading to rebuild the theater, founding the Shakespeare Globe Trust and raising money mostly from American sources. The English thought his efforts quixotic (upstart Yank!). But Wanamaker's passion prevailed. He died in 1995 and is now a hero in his adopted country. It's astonishing to think that without the House Un-American Activities Committee there would be no Globe theater today.
Even now there are those who think that Globism is reactionary. Adrian Noble, artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, says it's a "fascinating phenomenon, but it remains to be seen if it's a good artistic phenomenon." He and others worry that the Globe will become a theme park-a Bardland featuring Hamlet and Falstaff instead of Mickey and Donald. But Peter Hall, former head of the Royal National Theatre and now running a company at the Old Vic, says, "People who worry should just shut up and support the thing. Let the vitality happen. It's only a shame that the British didn't do it first."
The very design of the Globe expresses Shakespeare's original appeal to an entire culture, high and low. The new Globe's implicit mandate is to do the same. That's a tough job at this millennial moment of sound bites and image bombs. In the end, Shakespeare is language, with or without a roof.