Shakespeare Recreated at the Rebuilt Globe Theatre: A Production of "Much Ado"


On 15 July 1996 the Shakespeare Program of the English Department, of the University of California, Berkeley staged one of the earliest Elizabethan-style performances on the stage of the rebuilt Globe Theatre near the site of Shakespeare's original Globe Theatre in Southwark, on the right bank of London's River Thames. This performance resulted from the close association of the Program with Sam Wanamaker's long campaign to recreate the Globe as a monument to Shakespeare's genius, which allowed the recording of many aspects of the reconstruction. The event also reflected the Program's twenty years of outdoor productions of Shakespeare in the mode of an Elizabethan traveling company, using various expedient sites round the Berkeley campus which matched the production requirements of an open-air theatre such as the Globe.

Indeed, the production of Much Ado About Nothing which was staged at the Globe originated in such a performance earlier in 1996 on the front steps of Wheeler Hall, before a neoclassical façade with a balcony overhanging a series of doors approximating to those backing the original Globe stage. An audience which was partly seated, partly standing could gather round the "stage" at the top of the shallow flight of steps. This production, directed by Hugh Richmond, stressed vocal projection, clarity of meaning, bold blocking, authentic music and dances, and handsome costumes in Elizabethan style. Scenery and props were minimal, Some seating was provided but many of the audiences of several hundreds for the four performances were standing.

The intention in transferring this production to the new London Globe was to explore the effect of staging in an approximation to the kind of stage for which Shakespeare wrote, in this production, as redirected for this purpose by the USA Globe's director Louis Fantasia. There was no preoccupation over the absolute authenticity of all its details, simply with the fact that the new Globe had the broad characteristics of any renaissance open-air theatre of which the modern Globe was simply a variant, requiring like its prototype a certain kind of vocal projection; broad and dynamic blocking; and an absolute dependence on the force and clarity of the acting and music. The challenges included ensuring the audibility of the higher pitched women's voices, comparable to those of the original boy actors in the women's roles. Interestingly enough we found that the voices of female singers perfectly filled the Globes space, as did the high-pitched renaissance musical instruments (mostly recorders). The vocal style suiting the arena proved close to operatic enunciation. A non-realistic rhetorical vocalization proved essential. Any kind of modern "realistic" conversational acting style proved quite unusable, though Mark Rylance uniquely managed to achieve remarkable projection of low-keyed passages in later, professional productions. We found that our formal style of speech was remarkably accessible in most parts of the theater, including the upper galleries, even though microphones in these positions were ineffective in achieving the adjustments permitted by the sensitivity of the human ear. While we experienced few difficulties in recording all dialogue with two microphones placed on the stage floor near the front edge of the stage, there have been many complaints about audibility from audience members in the highest galleries and those adjoining the rear of the stage. We are inclined to think that this results from poor vocal projection or careless blocking for what is essentially "theatre in the round."

Similar conclusions could be drawn from our visual experience at the rebuilt Globe. The gallery seats directly facing the stage were not necessarily the only good positions visually, as confirmed by aristocrats use originally of the "lords rooms" at either side of the stage. As the stage is backlit in relation to the afternoon sun front seats in the galleries face directly into the sun's light, throwing the stage into semi-darkness, which can be avoided by seating further round the arena in either direction. Moreover, the central position foreshortens ones view of the stage whose exceptional depth is better perceived from an angled vision, and this is crucial for the multiple blocking of groups on stage, which proved a key effect of blocking required by the script. Direct frontal cameras produced dull four-square images, which may well be one of the problems resulting from the professional company's recording of their productions with a single camara sited in the exact middle of the second gallery facing the stage. Moreover, views from the higher galleries gave an attractive view of the patterning of groups, and proved particularly attractive in recording dance scenes. The greatest loss from the highest gallery was the sense of audience-response, which is unavoidably registered in most other positions with sight-lines flowing across the stage to spectators on the other side of the arena. This visual awareness has an enormous reinforcing effect on spectators' reactions.

Angled vision of the stage also minimizes the effect of the pillars, which seem to offer the most disturbing feature of the stage to most professionals on the Globe stage. As long as the blocking is dynamic rather than static , no actor is concealed from any audience member or camera by the pillars for more than a moment or two. This fast pacing is something that a few professional directors seem slow to appreciate, preferring rather to denounce the pillars as primitive obstacles. Yet the pillars provide essential punctuation points in the broad expanse of the stage, inviting groupings of actors to use the pillars as places for concealment and observation of other actions, such as Benedicks overhearing of the narrative about Beatrices love for him (2.3), or as pivots for vigorous movements, such as the Watch's chase of Borachio and Conrade (3.3). Moreover, the pillars establish separate spaces on the stage which can be occupied by distinct, even contrasting groups. Thus, in watching Don Pedro court Hero at the ball, Claudio can ruefully observe them from behind one pillar, while Don John can observe both the couple and Claudio from behind the other (2.1.83). The space outside the pillars can also establish an outward connection with the audience, as when Benedick comments sarcastically on the singing of Balthazar, addressing the audience directly. Similarly, the space downstage in front of the line of the pillars is another strong point for a direct address to the audience, such as Benedick's pivotal decision to accept the love he has been tricked into believing that Beatrice feels for him. This space has nothing to do with low-life scenes on a supposed platea as argued for by some scholars such as Robert Weimann in "Shakespeare and the Popular Tradition." It also looks precarious if occupied by a clumsy group, such as the Watch, which is best situated in the centre of the stage. Curiously enough, the upstage point directly before the façade and beneath the balcony, which some feel should be the locus for major figures is not very accessible either visually or acoustically for audiences, and can only be used for background effects. Even more surprising is that the gallery is a yet weaker position: our Beatrice barely registered visually when placed there to overhear the revelation of Benedicks supposed love for her. Despite the famous balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet, the balcony is not a good locus for complex scenes and is best reserved for loud rhetorical exchanges such as that owhen Henry V, standing below at stage center, threatens the citizens above, supposedly on the walls of Harfleur. Indeed, the balcony's best use is only for the musicians, whose Renaissance instruments are sharp enough in tone to cross the distance to all parts of the audience.

Music and dance are essential to fill the broad stage space; Much Ado has two dance episodes, the earlier one displaying tension and the later one its resolution. Dance fills the central space effectively, yet Shakespeare adds an extra perspective in both cases, using other stage spaces for observers to relate to the scene, whether Claudio and Don John in the first dance, or Don Pedro, left isolated from the concluding dance. One of the great achievements of the Globe company under Mark Rylance was the recovery of the notorious jigs which concluded Elizabethan performances of all kinds of play. The danse macabre with which Rylance ended his Hamlet is a brilliant case in point. However, choreography covers many other complex effects of blocking required to dress a stage devoid of scenery, as in the Watch's capture of Conrad and Borachio, the disrupted wedding scene, the lament for Hero, and the climactic presentation of the three veiled women to their baffled lovers. The broad scale of such scenes allowed for the necessary high level of projection required by a large open-air theatre. Appropriate blocking required speakers to be more widely separated than allowed for use of the niceties of Method acting, which may be ideal for cinematic and video close-ups but does not suit the high rhetorical style of the Elizabethan stage.

The images of our staging of Much Ado at the rebuilt Globe Theatre should be approached in the light of these comments on Elizabethan staging. The pictures can serve as a basic introduction to the experience of using an Elizabethan theatre. Three of the clips in the Video Gallery show excerpts from the videotape of this early Elizabethan-style of performance at the rebuilt Globe Theatre. 

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Except where otherwise specified, all written commentary is © 2016, Hugh Macrae Richmond.