Bankside & Shakespeare’s Globe

In which I visit Shakespeare’s Globe theatre and play games when I should be working.

There’s much I like about being a teacher.  The holidays are great but the work is hard and the rewards not as great as people seem to think.  One of the perks is that occasionally, I get to visit a really interesting place.  School parties get to access museums and landmarks in a way that is not always available to the public and some organisations go out of their way to give students a rich and memorable experience.  One such place is Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre on London’s Bankside.

The oft retold story goes, that Sam Wannamaker (Who you will, of course, remember as Private Benjamin’s Dad) on arriving in London, asked to see the Globe Theatre and was horrified to hear that it no longer existed. This was the 1970s and the Government had more pressing concerns than our literary heritage.  He founded the Shakespeare Globe Trust to build a replica theatre on the South Bank of the Thames, as close to the original location as possible.  It opened in 1997 and continues to give audiences an experience akin to that of an Elizabethan playgoer and to educate audiences about Shakespeare and his contemporaries.  It is a very striking building: painstakingly constructed, using drawings and descriptions from the time plus a fair amount of guesswork.  It is crafted from English oak, using Elizabethan building techniques. The thatched roof is the only one in London, and the first one built in the city since the great fire in 1666.  It was the thatched roof that was the downfall of the original, as the whole thing burned down in 1613. Best viewed from the river, or the nearby Millennium bridge, The Globe nestles amongst the office blocks of Southwark, adding to the architectural diversity of the south bank.

They have a dedicated education centre, staffed by an extremely efficient team, who will create a day of bespoke activities designed to fire young imaginations and engage young interest.  It was here that Ms. E and I arrived with an assortment of young adults.  We were given a guide for the day, taken on a tour of the theatre, given a discussion about the play we were studying (The Taming of the Shrew). We were also treated an acting workshop, where we all got to take part in the sort of games and activities the company use to better understand a play and its language.  Tremendous fun and very informative.  If you ever have the opportunity to take a group of young people on a trip, I strongly recommend it.

We also got a trip round the exhibition, which is well worth the entrance fee.  Built underneath the theatre, the exhibition features a large central space surrounded by galleries. In the central hall, they stage demonstrations – stage fighting skills when we visited – and the galleries feature a huge range of exhibits: a reconstructed printing press; audio recordings of Shakespearean actors; artefacts uncovered during the excavation; props and costumes.  It all helps you to build a complete picture of Elizabethan life and see Shakespeare as a living, evolving entity, rather than a relic from the past.  It is with this attitude that they approach their productions. Ms. E and I returned in the summer to see a production of the ‘Shrew’ and were very impressed. It was imaginatively done, setting the play in Ireland in the early 20th Century.  Not a traditional Elizabethan production but you still get the feel of what a traditional production would have been like, with music, dancing, exuberant acting and audience involvement.

The theatre also stages productions by Shakespeare’s contemporaries and, in the newly opened Sam Wannamaker Playhouse – a recreation of a renaissance theatre (indoor, smaller and candlelit) – stage new writing and hold music concerts.  As well as being dedicated to Shakespeare, the whole thing, complete with restaurants, bars and shop, is more like a vibrant, living arts centre than a museum. While we’re on the subject of shops, the Globe’s bookshop is a peach.  A wide selection of books on all things Shakespearean, along with the usual array of gifts from pencil sharpeners to plastic skulls, with something for everyone: I bought a facsimile edition of Hamlet.  I am pleased and proud to say that, when asked for feedback, all my young charges cited the bookshop as their favourite part of the day. In the age of online shopping, they don’t often get to visit a bookshop, so a decent one like this still has the power to captivate.

The whole Globe complex fits very nicely into the redeveloping Bankside, along with Tate Modern and Gabriel’s Wharf, it is becoming the capital’s foremost destination for the Arts, particularly when you consider that the National Theatre and South Bank Centre are a short riverside walk away.  After the show, it’s worth taking a walk to discover some of Bankside’s other attractions.

If you find your way to Park Street and turn East towards London Bridge you will find the site of the Rose Playhouse.  Here most of Marlowe’s plays were performed and Shakespeare presented his early work under the management of Philip Henslowe, whose diary survives and can be read online.  The site was discovered during excavations for the office block that stands over the site.  There was a campaign to preserve it but this was the 1980s and the Government had more pressing concerns than our literary heritage.  A compromise was reached, however, and the new building was erected over the site.  You can access it only at certain times as it is still an active archeological site. There is a display of archeological finds and it serves as a venue for performances. There are also regular events and open days. Continue down park street and you will see a memorial plaque on your right just after you go under Southwark bridge.  This marks the site where the original Globe Theatre stood, now occupied with some very smart flats.

It’s also woIMG_0109rth visiting Southwark Cathedral, which contains a further monument to the Bard, along with a window depicting scenes from his plays.  It also contains the tombs of several people of note, including Edmund Shakespeare, Will’s brother, who was a player, as was Edward Alleyne.  John Fletcher, who also lies here, was a writer who collaborated with Shakespeare and succeeded him as writer in residence for the King’s Men.  The famous Borough Market can provide you with some interesting food if you’re peckish, although it can be rather expensive. There is an excellent fish and chip shop, however.  I expect you’ve worked up quite a thirst by now and will need some refreshment before the journey home.

The George Inn is the only surviving example of a Galleried Inn left in the capital.  It was in the courtyards of Inns such as this that plays were first performed, from the courtyard you can observe the triple-tiered galleries and reflect on the similar design of the theatre.  It is a beautiful and atmospheric place for your post-theatre pint and they serve food if you want to make an evening of it.  It can get very busy on summer evenings and there are a couple of places still left to visit.  In the adjacent street, Talbot Yard, once stood the Tabard Inn from where Chaucer’s pilgrims set out on their journey to Canterbury.  A blue plaque marks the location.  Continue south and you will see the modern Harvard Library on your left.  This was built on the site of the Marshalsea Prison, where Charles Dickens’s father was sent for debt in 1824. Dickens, who was only 12 at the time was deeply affected by the experience.  The prison features prominently in Little Dorrit (The George Inn also makes an appearance).    To finish our tour on a Shakespearean note, his contemporary, Ben Jonson was incarcerated at Marshalsea in 1597 for writing a seditious play.  Although the building no longer remains, the wall is still visible in St. George’s churchyard.

Details of performances from Shakespeare’s Globe and Rose Playhouse.  The George Inn is run by the National Trust.

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