Perched on the edge of my seat, peering down at the stage two tiers below, I entertain the horrible notion that gravity will prevail and my glasses will end up dropping into the middle of the action. We’re midway through a Royal Shakespeare Company’s (RSC) production of The Winter’s Tale, William Shakespeare’s story of epic confusion, misfounded jealousy, young love and dead statues springing back to life, when the premonition of this potential disruption flashes through my mind.
We’re ringside at London’s Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, which is part of the recreated Globe Theatre complex on the South Bank of the Thames River. In fact, the whole precinct owes its existence to the American actor and director, who relocated to London after he was blacklisted during the anti-communist witch-hunts of the 1950s. Wanamaker was instrumental in the foundation of the Shakespeare Globe Trust, which was dedicated to reconstructing a “wooden O” theatre near the site of the original 1599 building. Sadly, he died shortly before the new Globe opened in 1997, not to mention the Playhouse named in his honour, which was designed to replicate the early indoor theatres of Elizabethan times, and opened in 2014.
Historically, our Playhouse seats would have been the best in the house, up beside the musicians’ gallery, not because they offer a particularly good view of the stage, but because they were elevated above the malodorous mellee of the groundlings below. As our guide has explained earlier on a highly recommended tour of The Globe, patrons who parted with a hard earned penny to stand at stage level in the yard that would now be called the stalls, were not going to leave the theatre to spend a proverbial penny and risk having to pay again to re-enter. So they dealt with calls of nature on the spot.
Apart from being well removed from the stench of ground level these top-tier seats also afforded the lower classes the best vantage to view the aristocracy in their finery and the heavens, the roof over the stage, which was painted with stars and moons to reflect the Renaissance faith in the importance of zodiac movements.
Our guide, whose other job is as a drama teacher, also offers the invaluable advice not to worry too much about understanding every word of the play … just follow the body language and you’ll get the drift, is his tip. After all, he reasons, Shakespeare wrote for such a broad audience, even they wouldn’t have understood every bit of a play. So have a glass of wine and relax into it, is his recommendation.
The complete story was published in Australian Country issue 19.6. Click here to subscribe to our magazine.
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Words Kirsty McKenzie
Photography Ken Brass and Petele May