A Most Rare Vision

With over 50,000 tickets sold, the Pop-up Globe has been a remarkable commercial success. But is it historically accurate? And should it be?

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With over 50,000 tickets sold, the Pop-up Globe has been a remarkable commercial success. But is it historically accurate? And should it be?

In the parking lot at the bottom end of Grey’s Avenue, a strange round building has suddenly popped up, made of raw scaffolding, clad in white sheeting, and topped by a double-gabled red roof with an onion dome between its peaks. The Pop-up Globe presents itself as an accurate full-size recreation of the playhouse built in the reign of James I of England to house the plays of the King’s Men. Considered the leading company of players in London, they counted among their partners the playwright William Shakespeare, the 400th anniversary of whose death falls in April of this year. So: why is it there? And what can it tell us?

Modern Globe theatres are by no means a new development, and the previous claimant to the mantle of a 'historically accurate' Globe, the now-famous London landmark known as Shakespeare’s Globe, is neither the first nor - since its opening in 1997 - the only example. Globe Theatres designed to recall Shakespeare’s 'wooden O' stretch back to at least 1935, when two were built: one in Oregon and one in California. Seven in total were built in the United States before the London Globe, and since 1997, Globes have also opened in Germany, Rome and Tokyo. In recent years it may well seem like Globes are popping up all over.

In recent years it may well seem like Globes are popping up all over

Most of these earlier Globes sought to evoke the general idea of a circular theatre containing some sort of promontory stage thrust out into a surrounding audience. The London Globe and the Auckland Pop-Up Globe, however, are specifically designed and built according to the most accurate scholarship available for the dimensions and layout of the original structures of Shakespeare’s day. That they differ in certain respects – above all in the diameter of their circles – can be attributed to two circumstances. First, there is twenty years’ difference in the underlying scholarship: in particular, the Auckland building relies on recent research by Tim Fitzpatrick and Russell Emerson of Sydney University into the meagre surviving archaeology and visual records of the early theatres. Second, the Auckland Globe is based on evidence for what is in fact the second Globe theatre, rebuilt on the same foundations after the first Globe caught fire and burned down during a performance of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII in 1613 (no-one was hurt, but one man’s trousers caught fire and had to be doused with bottled beer).

There is in fact almost no direct evidence for the first Globe, but for the second there are fragments of the surviving foundations, exposed in 1989 in London during excavations, as well as a famous panorama etching of London from 1647 that includes the playhouse (by then destroyed) and, most important, a tiny 1638 eyewitness sketch of it made by the artist for the same etching. It is from these materials, expertly re-examined according to canons drawn from common architectural principles of the time, that Auckland’s Pop-Up Globe derives. It's the product of concerted scholarly labour reaching out for a structure almost lost to what Shakespeare’s Prospero calls “the dark backward and abysm of time.”

There are, of course, differences between the Pop-Up Globe and a fully reconstructed version of a second Globe theatre. The original was built of oak timber and plaster with a tile roof (the first Globe used thatch, but the players learned their lesson). Its modern counterpart is made of tube-and-coupler scaffolding and boards. The original stage-cover roof was decoratively floored and probably used to store machinery for flying entries; the pop-up version keeps its roof open from below, which has further consequences, along with the open gallery fronts, for the acoustic profile of the building - and hence for actors speaking in it. 

But why rebuild a Globe Theatre at all, except as a sort of tourist monument? 

But why rebuild a Globe Theatre at all, except as a sort of tourist monument? Can a revived structure really give us useful insights into the shape and resonance of Shakespeare’s plays, now so well-known in languages and venues all around the world? Or do we risk simply freezing the plays in a falsely “authentic” amber, when everything around them, including ourselves, is profoundly changed from what Shakespeare knew, perhaps even from what he imagined? These serious reservations throw out a challenge to the Pop-Up Globe, its performers and its audiences. The dream of 'getting close' to Shakespeare is attractive, but we need in the end also to be sceptical about it. We can never be an 'authentic' audience in that sense, any more than we can be one for Mozart or Beethoven, or perhaps even Mahler – too much has changed of our knowledge, habits, and expectations.

And yet, even if we cannot be Mozart’s audience, we can learn a lot from playing his sonatas on a piano contemporary with him – about the shape of his music, its texture and how it works with – or pulls against – the instrument. And that knowledge can in turn inform what we make of that music and its expressive possibilities in our own world. The same is true of the Pop-Up Globe. Knowing something about how even the reconstructed auditorium works can direct our attention to kinds of action and interaction in Shakespeare’s plays that a modern proscenium or black-box theatre performance obscures: how immediate and accessible the action is, for instance, or how crucial the control and direction of voice, or how the venue, with its three galleries all round and its audience at foot level, creates a community of watchers of a particularly live kind.

When characters address us from this stage, they are more nearly our fellows. When they speak to themselves, they are also - more inescapably - speaking with us. And this remains an insight true for (and transformative of) our sense of his plays in other venues, and even in the same venue but staged according to very different, modern conventions. We can work along or with the grain of an enriched historical awareness as well as, consciously, against it. We must not seek a merely dead historical knowledge, or betray our own need to know these plays in new ways by shutting them up in a false historicism.

We must not seek a merely dead historical knowledge, or betray our own need to know these plays in new ways by shutting them up in a false historicism.

A good example of this complex creative attention lies in the question of the gender of modern actors. We know that Shakespeare’s actors were all male. His leading female parts, so richly and variously written, were written for skilled apprentices – boys and adolescent young men trained over years by senior actors. In what we might call the taxonomy of gender roles in Shakespeare’s day, boys were as apt to be classed with women – in not being adult men – as they were to be ranked with their same-gender superiors. There was therefore a clear, if to us unfamiliar, logic to the roles they played on stage: boys were, as it were, categorically, female.

Contemporary casts including adult male actors in female roles are therefore interesting and innovative, but represent a different set of concerns and styles than would have been raised by Shakespeare’s settled practice, even if we set aside issues of pantomime and drag-performance cross-dressing that inevitably haunt our own adult-male versions of female impersonation. To 'do it historically' we would need access to suitably-trained young men prepared to forgo the more modern vocabularies and styles of 'camp' – but we no longer have easy access to such actors. Our nearest analogue is perhaps, paradoxically, female actors! This does not mean we cannot learn from adult cross-dressed performances. But it does mean we should remain wary of embracing them as historically authentic. Rather, they should be in a complex dialogue with authenticity, testing it as much as embracing it.

So we should welcome, embrace and above all attend the Pop-Up Globe. And be deeply grateful for the scholarship, and the organisational and artistic daring that has enabled that opportunity. But we can’t just check our modernity at the door and relax into Olde Tyme Shaksper. If we cosily do that, we deceive ourselves - and risk losing a real chance to meet and learn from the past in our contemporary globe.

The Pop-Up Globe
runs until Sunday 24 April