Friday, 11 December 2009:
The replica of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre was more interesting inside, especially when taking the tour, than outside. Two points made by the tour guide I found particularly significant.
The first was the excellent acoustics, especially considering that it was not an enclosed space. It has no roof over the central pit. Someone on stage could speak in normal tones and still be heard throughout the theatre. This may well mean that the “traditional” way of performing Shakespeare, with actors projecting their voices, declaiming their way through their roles, with broadly sweeping arms, was not the way the plays were originally performed. We think of that “traditional” style as very Shakespearean – something that schoolkids are taught when they have to do Shakespeare in school productions – but it would have been totally unnecessary in a theatre like the Globe.
On the contrary, oratory would be somewhat absurd, bombastic even, in a theatre as intimate as the Globe. The front of the standing audience would have been just a metre from the actor on stage.
The second thing was even more interesting. The guide pointed out that in Shakespeare’s time, performances took place in the afternoon, between 2 and 5 p.m. The theatre depended on natural light, and the audience was as well lit as the stage players. Actors could see the audience as well as the audience could see the actors. It’s very unlike the current way of performing Shakespeare in an enclosed theatre with artificial light, where actors, when they look out to the audience, see only darkness and blinding spotlights.
What does that do to the psychology of the performance? It becomes much less uni-directional. The actors would literally play to the gallery. The viewers could smile back, hiss and heckle. Much of Shakespeare’s dialogues therefore should be seen in a new light, not as actors talking among themselves, but as things they say to the audience, eliciting reactions in turn. Crude jokes are less meant for the actor playing opposite you as meant for the audience.
Another example: When Mark Anthony goes, “Friends, Romans, countrymen,” today we tend to picture it as a scene with an actor speaking to an assembly of other actors playing the roles of Roman citizens, a la on film. The audience is detached; they are third-party voyeurs. But given the layout of the Globe, in Shakespeare’s day, the actor would automatically have stood at the front edge of the stage and addressed the audience – whom he could quite clearly see, and whose feelings he had to move. That’s just one example of the way the audience would have become complicit in the unfolding plots or conspiracies, whether in Julius Caesar or any other play.
More importantly, it completely undermines what we have “traditionally” thought of Shakespearean soliloquys. Were they really the speaking aloud of inner thoughts as customarily understood? How could that be when the actor was not alone, solitary in his light bubble in a darkened theatre? The new understanding is that soliloquys are the sharing of ideas and conspiratorial plans with an audience; they are not ruminations, but salesmanship. The characters know very well what’s on their minds, but have to convince the audience to go with them, sometimes by presenting (and subtly debunking) the opposing case as well.
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I bought a take-away sandwich for lunch, perferring to sit on the South Bank promenade despite the five-degree cloudy weather. Near where I chose to sit was a stall branded with a samurai figure. It said, in English, ramen noodles were available, at some crazy tourist price of course. I guess the Japanese translation said the same.
Three young Japanese women came by and got all excited seeing the stall. They cooed and clucked among themselves, agreeing that hot ramen would be perfect for a cold day. They went up to the stall.
The guy manning it first had his back turned to them. The girls said something in Japanese, probably the equivalent of “excuse me” prompting the guy to turn around and take their order. It was then that we could see he was a blue-eyed Caucasian, with a young man’s blond hair peeking out from under his paper cap.
Totally surprised to see a non-Japanese, the female trio broke into uncontrollable giggles. And then, to my unbelieving eyes, they bowed, reeled backwards, excused themselves and virtually ran away.
I couldn’t help laughing, which freed the blond guy to laugh just as hard.