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Stairway to Shakespeare

I think this weekend is the first time I have ever felt déjà vu in relation to a staircase.

This weekend we decided to go walking in Epping Forest for the first time and apart from a few cases of getting slightly lost – always, it seems to me, a threat in any kind of woodland – it was a fine day with some nice surprises, including one of the most stunning caterpillars I’ve come across (that of the Pale Tussock Moth, google it – very striking but with a very clear message of ‘don’t touch me’). We started out from Queen Elizabeth’s Hunting Lodge, a Tudor (actually despite the name, built by Henry VIII) Grandstand for in favour guests of the king to be able to stand on top and take pot shots at deer corralled to make it a bit easier, not so much a hunt as shooting fish in a barrel. Despite the tasteless nature of its purpose, it’s a fine building and as I was climbing the wide and stable stairs towards the top it did dawn on me that the staircase seemed quite familiar. But I know for a fact that I had never been to this building before.

The answer turned up in the historical notes. I had been on this staircase before, or at least one just like it, many, many times. Apparently when they rebuilt Shakespeare’s Globe theatre on the South Bank, it was this staircase that was used, in exact proportions, as the model for the stairs in that building. Who knew? I didn’t, but at least that explained the odd familiarity with the structure and size of the stairs.

The Lovely Wife and I have been to the Globe numerous times over the last ten or so years, usually two or three times a year, depending on what the productions are. On the whole, I prefer the history plays or the comedies to the tragic works, but they are almost always enjoyable. This year, King John was surprisingly entertaining for example, and a play I knew nothing about beforehand. There have been some highlights – Jamie Parker as first Prince Hal in Henry IV parts I and II, and later in Henry V was stunning, and well worth picking up the DVDs of those performances (in the latter case he is even able to make the coda of the wooing of the French princess entertaining and that is quite a feat). There have also been the odd dud, when no matter how hard they try the play is so unredeemable dull that it cannot be saved – Anthony and Cleopatra a few years back being a case in point.

But normally there is much fun to be had, even with the tragedies. The joy of the approach at the Globe is to recognise that the plays are not some kind of sacred art but a source of – often raucous – entertainment. Yes, they can be thoughtful and shocking, but in the end people want to be entertained and the minimalist approach means that no one is under any illusion of trying to suspend disbelief and the Fourth Wall is breached continuously and deliberately with the regular interaction with the audience – don’t think that just because it is Shakespeare you are safe from being dragged up onto the stage – and joking about the various distractions that are inevitable London, such as helicopters, trapped pigeons and, of course, rain. One particular vivid memory is of a production of Faustus, with Arthur Darvill (he of Rory in Doctor Who fame) as Mephistopheles in a tight red leather suit (for some reason the Lovely Wife also finds this memorable) stood on stage in a torrential downpour and looking and gesturing to sky with an expression of such withering scorn that you kind of felt either sorry for a demon or, more likely, that the rain should probably stop if it knew what was good for it. The crowd, encased in their soaked plastic Globe ponchos loved it.

I’d heartily recommend going if you have the chance, and I am not sure it matters much what is on. Just go expecting to laugh and be entertained, and remember to hire a cushion if you are lucky enough to be sitting as the benches are hard, and while you might be OK for The Comedy of Errors, Hamlet may cause longer term issues. And when you are climbing the stairs you can now point at them and use a new bit of trivia to bore whoever you are going out with at the time.

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