What better place to take in Shakespeare than his Globe? You’d struggle to suggest somewhere, wouldn’t you? And indeed, the first half-hour of Monday night’s visit lived up to its romantic notion. It began with a jaunty little stroll across Millennium Bridge, bursting with ‘I-live-in-this-city’ smugness. We sashayed into the swish theatre foyer, collected our ‘press passes’ (media, dahling), sidled through to the courtyard, oooohed at the Elizabethan exterior – all whitewash and timber – aaaahed at the interior with its three tiers of beamed seating and decadent canopied stage decorated with gilt, sculpted lions and strips of plush red carpet. Our seats were good; we were lucky enough to be at the rear, where we had the privilege of a wall to lean against, unlike others who perched on backless benches or the ‘paupers’ milling about in the ‘yard’. A fanfare of trumpets heralded the entrance of the players, and Henry VIII began.
And that, my friends, is where the good stuff ended. To return to a phrase I used earlier – ‘take in’ – can it really be termed taking something in, when you’re watching and listening, but not understanding one goddamn word? When you’re seeing the actors’ mouths move, but thinking only about how your behind is really rather sore after three hours on a stiff, unyielding wooden plank. When you’re tapping your feet not in time to the harps and pipes, but rather to drown out the loudly protesting stomach of the OAP sat next to you, the rustling crisp packets from the gaggle of Japanese tourists and the sound of the whole audience repositioning their posteriors or shifting their weight to the opposite foot. Heed this advice: if you want to properly ‘take in’ the bard from the authenticity of this historic theatre, it’s an awfully good idea to read the play before you go (or, better, a diluted summary – remember Spark Notes?) and it’s an even better idea to bring a cushion.
Having said all of the above, there are some things at the Globe that you can ‘take in’ quite easily. I certainly ‘took in’ the interval snacks. I also ‘took in’ the prices of said snacks: that is, in mild disbelief and not-so-mild horror. I wasn’t myself ‘taken in’ by the tat that is the gift shop merchandise, though I’m sure some clowns – tourists and groups of impressionable schoolchildren – are quite magnificently taken in by the Manga editions of Hamlet and Macbeth, the Capulet boxer shorts and the pencils fashioned to look like quills.
They say that Henry VIII is a play of spectacle. And spectacle there was, with a divorce, a wedding, a coronation, a Christening, a birth, a death, a song and a dance, and some codpieces of pretty spectacular proportion. Catherine of Aragon made a right old spectacle of herself, screaming histrionically in a tiresome and unconvincing Spanish accent. Even more spectacular was the mess made of Anne Boleyn’s lady-in-waiting, whose nationality lapsed from Russian to Eastern European to Czech, until she mentioned Carmarthenshire and I realised, OH MY GOD, she’s supposed to be Welsh.
How symbolic that this was the play during which the original Globe burnt down, when it was staged in 1613. I’m sure there were audience members on Monday who might happily have taken a match to the place again if it meant escaping Acts Four and Five. Worth noting, too, is that Henry VIII was one of Shakespeare’s very last plays, and one whose authorship is disputed, with suspicions that it was co-authored or heavily revised by John Fletcher, Shakespeare’s successor as playwright for the King’s Men. It is also one of the most seldom-performed of his plays. I am not surprised. These facts all taken together make me feel much less guilty about criticising one of our county’s most-admired historical figures and one of London’s most-revered landmarks. This time, alas, it was not for me.