Both London and Stratford-upon-Avon recreate the 1600s for the Bard's 450th birthday
Ignore the rain-jackets and the plastic beer glasses and you might feel as if you have been transported back to Shakespeare’s London when you join an audience in the Globe on the south bank of the Thames.
The theatre, reconstructed along the lines of the original erected in 1599 and destroyed by fire 14 years later, recreates the atmosphere of the time, complete with hard wooden benches and standing room under an open sky.
Since its opening in 1997, Shakespeare’s Globe as it is called to distinguish it from the two earlier versions, has become a shrine for aficionados from all over the world.
But with the 450th birthday of perhaps the most famous Englishman ever on April 23 this year, the steady trickle of visitors is set to turn into a flood – for the Globe and for the other Shakespeare sites in England.
“People don’t come here to behave as tourists,” explains Globe director Neil Constable. “Most visitors genuinely want to immerse themselves in Shakespeare’s times.”
The circular half-timbered structure in London’s Bankside draws around a million visitors a year. To coincide with the birthday, space for an additional 100,000 a year is being made with the opening of a completely new indoor theatre adjacent to the Globe.
This theatre is based on drawings of a theatre built in 1566 on the north bank of the river – a roofed structure intended for wealthier patrons.
Made almost entirely of oak within a brick shell and lit by candles, it provides a haven from London’s hectic street life. The painted ceiling is based on contemporary drawings and shows heavenly angels.
Additional light is provided by wooden windows opening onto a gallery lit by hanging daylight lamps. “Plays were often put on during the day at the time,” the Globe’s artistic director Dominic Dromgoole says.
Dromgoole avoids the word “authentic” when referring to the new theatre, noting that it is impossible to ascertain today precisely how the theatre looked in Shakespeare’s time.
“But this probably is as close as it gets,” he says.
By contrast with the main theatre, which is open from April to October and closed for the London winter on account of the open roof, the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse – named for the actor, director and prime mover behind the project – is to be open the whole year round.
The first production – the Jacobean drama “The Duchess of Malfi” written by John Webster in around 1613 - had its opening night in mid-January with Gemma Arterton in the title role.
After steeping themselves in the London of the 1600s, true Shakespeare fans will head north-west for two and a half hours by train to Shakespeare’s home of Stratford-upon-Avon.
Around 3 million visitors descend on the small town every year, drawn by its scenic alleyways and walks along the River Avon.
Most are drawn to the house Shakespeare was born in and the cottage in which his wife, Anne Hathaway, grew up. Shakespeare’s birthplace has drawn visitors since the 19th century, including Dickens, Sir Walter Scott, Byron and Tennyson.
The rooms have been carefully restored to lend an impression of conditions that the playwright grew up in before moving to London, probably in the mid-1580s. Shakespeare’s father was a glove maker and wool trader, and his mother the daughter of a landowner.
Stratford has for the past 200 years put on a party for his birthday, with a parade and special events. This year the celebrations will take place on the weekend of April 26 and 27, with the organisers promising exceptional events, although details were not yet available.
Precisely when Stratford’s greatest son came into the world is not known, although by tradition April 23, 1564 is the date used. The register at the Holy Trinity Church in the town shows that he was baptised on April 26, and babies were usually christened three days after birth.
The focus will be on the Royal Shakespeare Company and its two theatres – the 1,000-seat Royal Shakespeare Theatre and the smaller Swan, both reopened in the autumn of 2010 after extensive renovations.
Speaking at the opening, project leader Peter Wilson said his intention had been to create an inviting space rather than an elitist venue for Shakespeare experts.
The aim, as with the Globe, has been to recreate the atmosphere of the time, with laughter, comments from off stage and audience participation.
The Swan has been retained in historical style, with a thrust wooden stage enhancing the effect of intimacy. “We hope that we have honoured the past while at the same time pointing to the future,” Wilson said.