Doing the rounds at the South Bank show


November 19, 1999

In its South Bank setting, the new Globe has not, as so many feared, become a debased "heritage" Shakespeare for tourists or "Stratford-on-Thames", but the scene of stimulating productions of Shakespeare and his contemporaries.

Pauline Kiernan's book is the fruit of her three-year appointment as Leverhulme research fellow to study performances at the new Globe. As an academic in this environment Kiernan gained first-hand knowledge of the rehearsal process and staging problems during the preliminary 1996 performances and the first full season in 1997. With the Globe's third season now complete, a book which deals only with this first season has obvious limitations but it provides the first detailed analysis of what has been learned from working in this space and the light shed on the practices of early open theatres.

The book is divided into three parts. In the first, "The Shock of the Old", scholarship on Renaissance staging is matched against experience and practice at the new Globe. The effect of the configuration of the stage and auditorium, the transformation of the role of the audience and the ambiguities created by the story-telling mode are considered. The second and third parts are really appendices that frequently result in repetition. The rehearsal process of Richard Olivier's Henry V is traced, often in bullet-point format, while the final part consists of comments from actors and directors, the result of interviews by the author. Some final analysis would have been appropriate.

The newness of this "old" space is overstressed. Kiernan sometimes appears to believe that all contemporary theatre deals with fictions "played out within the two-dimensional space of a proscenium arch stage" where "the style of acting we're used to in the late 20th century" might be called "naturalistic" or "psychologically real". The establishment of open-stage and arena theatres in Britain, in response to a move away from naturalism and the fourth wall, seems to have passed her by.

The greater audience interaction that stems from such altered configurations is symptomatic of much late 20th-century theatre, which is why the new Globe is so paradoxically contemporary. The real differences between a theatre like the Swan and the new Globe are "same light" performances open to the sky, the absence of all technology, and a standing audience of "groundlings".

The dynamics of audience interaction are well evidenced and while interaction with the groundlings is recognised as liberating and energising it must not harm the story; booing the French soldiers in Henry V is at least engaging with the fiction, but noisily not paying attention is actually the audience's attempt to reinstate the fourth wall.

Given the spatial nature of much of the discussion it is surprising that Kiernan provides no groundplans or sketches. Eight pages of photographs offer some indication of performance positions but are not cross-referenced with the text.

Kiernan is strongest when she suggests how the Globe space throws postmodern orthodoxies up for question, such as the homo-eroticism in cross dressing. Self-referentiality and an awareness of actor and role are shown to be symptomatic of the Globe experience and might change our reading of Renaissance texts.

Kiernan is good, too, at reinforcing that this is a theatre for the ear. Fine acoustics mean we listen to the story even when we cannot see the speakers. However, the effect of a narrative conducted against a highly decorated frons scenae has yet to be fully explored.

This book will act as a good interim guide to our experience of the new Globe, valuable for scholars and theatre goers. In due course further experience of this remarkable theatre might enable us to reassess the importance of some of Shakespeare's contemporaries, three of whose plays have already been performed there.

Ian Mitchell is head of English and drama, Grantham College, associate college of Nottingham Trent University.

Staging: Shakespeare at the New Globe

Author - Pauline Kiernan
ISBN - 0 333 662 5 and 663 3
Publisher - Macmillan
Price - £42.50 and £12.99
Pages - 175

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