SCENE BY JAMES: The Pop-up Globe Experience

Review by James Wenley

The company of Twelfth Night

[A Worthy Scaffold]

The interior of the Pop-up Globe is breathtaking
The interior of the Pop-up Globe is breathtaking

The original Globe theatre has a terrific origin story. Shakespeare and co were leasing ‘The Theatre’ in Shoreditch, but they didn’t like their landlord. A careful reading of the lease revealed that while they didn’t own the land, they did own the playhouse.  A few days after a white Christmas of 1598, the acting company turned up with “swords daggers billes axes and such like” and over a period of four days tore down the Theatre and transported the material over the Thames to the site of the new Globe. The construction of the new playhouse took a bit longer. The builder promised twenty-eight weeks, but such quotes then are as reliable as they are today.  The first Globe burnt down in 1613 after a special effect in the production of Henry VIII went really wrong. The Second Globe was built on its foundations, opening a year later.

The famous reconstructed Shakespeare’s Globe in London was based on the then best research into the design of the first globe, but as academics will tut-tut, we now know is not entirely accurate. It was constructed using the techniques and materials of the Elizabethan period, and it took much longer to complete than even the most charitable Elizabethan builder’s estimate. Three and half years to be precise, preceded by twenty-three years of case-building by Sam Wanamaker). It is a gorgeous building, and has revolutionised the contemporary performance of Shakespeare around the world. No trip to London in the summer is complete without a visit.

The London globe is not at the exact spot of the original. The foundations of the original globe is now covered by a carpark. There is some urban poetry then that Auckland’s version of the second Globe theatre has popped up in an Auckland Council carpark, Mayoral Drive standing in for the river Thames. It is not the grandest location for this playhouse (imagine this on the waterfront!), but is an accessible one.

And once you are inside the Globe, you would be none the wiser. The brainchild of Miles Gregory, based on the research of Australian academic Tim Fitzpatrick, Camelspace built the Pop-up Globe in a remarkable 34 something days. Over summer I’d walk by and marvel at the progress (their Instagram account recorded it all). Tim Fitzpatrick has quibbled that the pillars on the stage are in the wrong place, and he maintains there would have been only two doors, and not the four of this version, however, this is arguably the closest yet we’ve got to the dimensions of the original playing spaces.

You walk in and have to pinch yourself – how are we still in Auckland? But nor does it feel like you are in London. For one, this venue is smaller, we are even closer to the actors. But more importantly, when you visit the Globe in London, it feels like you are walking into history. With its consciously visible scaffolding, the Pop-up Globe feels like an utterly contemporary space from the inside. In its own way, it gets us closer to the audiences of the original playhouses, who entered a new building that had popped up one winter on Southbank.

We have never been able to perform Shakespeare quite like this in Auckland before. I cannot stress how thrilling it is to hear the chorus of Henry V speak of the “wooden O” in the very same type of building (AND of “this unworthy scaffold” – how did Shakespeare know??). Or the way that you realise how often Twelfth Night makes reference to the weather when you’re standing in the groundling pit in the middle of an Auckland rainstorm.

I intend to catch them all. So far I’ve seen Romeo and Juliet from the upper seated section, and Twelfth Night and Henry V as a groundling (I saw Much Adoe About Nothing at their TAPAC ‘indoor playhouse’ season). The Tempest opens this week, and we still have Titus, Antony & Cleopatra, and Hamlet to come. There’s even Play On, a special one-off performance where 12 of Shakespeare’s most well known soliloquies are set to music, and performed by a cast of actors and musicians, alongside a string section and acoustic band.

Seated in the upper tier, Romeo and Juliet was an underwhelming experience. I did not react against the production as strongly as our reviewers Matt Baker and Miryam Jacobi (for the record, Matt was a groundling), but I did find it a fairly average version. It did what it needed to do, which was tell the story and make the most of this unique space, but it was a production that had very little to say about the play itself. In contrast, the all-female casting of Henry V meant that production had an awful lot to say about the domains of gender and warfare.

I had a genuinely great time at Twelfth Night. It was a week later, and the company had a much keener sense of how to work the space. The rain it raineth hard that night. And there I was in the groundling pit, wet as heck, but right up there by the stage. You couldn’t match the atmosphere and goodwill between the actors and audience. Hand on heart, this was one of my favourite Shakespearean experiences of my life.

The play itself had its high points, but was inconsistent. And this perhaps is the problem with the Pop-up project currently. The promise of the experience will get audiences in (and this they have – with incredible ticket sales), but it is the quality of the productions that will get audiences returning.

As I understand it, Twelfth Night and Romeo and Juliet, which are produced by the company behind the Pop-up Globe, are the only waged productions. The rest of the shows are unpaid or co-op productions. The abilities of the main company are very uneven. Acting in the globe space is a wonderful gift for an actor, but it is extremely challenging. It does not help when you are competing against the rain, or music from Aotea Square. The roof of the stage is not filled in, so the sound rises upwards instead of bouncing back. It can be difficult to hear everything from the seats. Our actors are still learning.

The other aspect that there has been some disquiet about is the all-male production of Twelfth Night (Romeo and Juliet has the same company of men, but with addition of three female actors). If there is one thing general audiences know about Shakespearean productions, it is that the companies were entirely men. But if you were going for historical accuracy, you would not have adults in the roles, but boy actors (no older than 21). Miles Gregory is not, and seeks to subvert ideas of authenticity as Twelfth Night goes on (but with Feste randomly showing up in jeans at the end of this Jacobean costume drama, it is an intention that is not nearly followed thoroughly enough to succeed).

So why do we need the all-male production? I acknowledge that it is fashionable to do Twelfth Night this way, and this production is clearly modelled on the Globe production which starred Mark Rylance and Stephen Fry. In this version we have a brilliant Maria (Stephen Butterworth), and an irresistible Olivia (Daniel Watterson), but this is countered with a forgettable Viola, a character who should be anything but.

It does not mean that we shouldn’t have Butterworth and Watterson in these roles, but you should also match this with some other gender inversions. Much Adoe’s commentary was heightened through its gender swapping, and Benjamin Henson’s The Tempest has taken another approach with gender-blind casting (with acclaimed actor Lisa Harrow as Prospero). The all-male casting of Twelfth Night is old-fashioned, and not in the way you want it. Ironically, the greatest argument against this choice is the all-female Henry V, which was spearheaded by local practitioners as a direct response to Twelfth Night’s casting call. Why wouldn’t you want some of these amazing actors in your cast?

The Pop-up Globe itself is more than I could have ever hoped for. I LOVE it. I think I love it more than the London Globe. Many audience members will go away entirely happy with what they’ve seen. As a Shakespearean nerd, I am so thrilled about how Aucklanders have taken to the concept. We are seeing and talking about Shakespeare, there is such a buzz in the venue. We are excited.

But I also long for stronger productions. Maybe I am asking too much. This is a learning process. As I mentioned, the casts are clearly improving the more they feel at ease in the space. But if you’re spending all this money on this remarkable venue, why wouldn’t you spend a little bit more on the personal? We should have had our best local directors, and best actors working on this. Miles Gregory is a warm, gregarious and passionate promoter, whose single-minded vision has resulted in this incredible achievement to mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. This really could go round the globe. Of course you’d want to play in your sandbox, but perhaps it was a strategic mistake to also direct Twelfth Night?

The reviewers have been singing in unison: the best way to do the Globe is as a groundling. For $15 you get the best view in the house, and in exchange you merely have to stand for three hours. Though it is smaller, I have actually found the pit much more roomier than in London. Auckland audiences haven’t yet quite cottoned on to leaning against the stage. And here’s a secret: when it’s raining, the side areas of the stage are covered. Get closer groundlings.

All criticisms aside, you will be an arrant knave indeed to miss the Pop-up Globe experience.

The Pop Up Globe
The Pop Up Globe

Romeo and Juliet [Reviewed by Matt Baker and Miryam Jacobi] and Twelfth Night   [Reviewed by Nathan Joe] are running throughout the season (until Mid-April) and are presented by the Pop-up Globe company. There are shorter seasons of other plays:

  • The Tempest from University of Auckland Summer Shakespeare (1+3+5+8+9+11+13 March)
  • Henry V from Shake It Up and Sharu Love Hats (28+29 Feb; 7+9 March) [Reviewed by Nathan Joe]
  • Titus from Fractious Tash (which originated as a Unitec third year production) (13+14+17+20 March)
  • Antony and Cleopatra from Brynes Productions (also Unitec originated) (28+29+31 March; 3 April)
  • Hamlet from the Lord Lackbeards Touring Company (11 April only)
  • And Play On, a musical imagining of the great soliloquies (3 April) 

Full schedule and details at the Pop-up Globe Website.

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2 Comments on SCENE BY JAMES: The Pop-up Globe Experience

  1. Absolutely spot on in my opinion. However on enquiry I believe it was touch and go right up until October whether the pop up would indeed pop up. No money. Gregory bet his shirt on his vision and when it came to auditions etc many actors were pre committed.

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