As most of you already know, I work as a teacher of English and literature. This July led to the culmination of an “Englishy” dream I’ve had since tenth grade literature class: to see a Shakespeare play in the reconstructed Globe Theatre in London.
As part of the celebration of our fifth anniversary a few weeks back, Danielle and I planned a brief trip to London. We hopped on a Ryanair flight to Stansted Airport and headed into the city for four packed days of exploration. I looked forward to the iconic sights of Westminster, The London Eye, Big Ben, Camden Lock Market and Tower Bridge just to name a few, but for me, the inevitable high-point was watching a play in the reconstructed Globe Theatre (or as I like to call it in class: The Bard’s Lair…it just sounds a bit more interesting).
I had to make a tough choice between two very different performances: Macbeth or The Taming of the Shrew. I tend to enjoy darker, existential themes about our inescapable mortality and the moral corruptibility of the human race (aren’t I a cheery guy) so the choice was fairly easy…but I could only purchase “groundling” tickets for the show, which meant standing bum to bum for three hours with 700 strangers fully exposed to the elements. With a pregnant wife.
Danielle is always game for whatever surprises I throw her way. In fact, she presciently suggested the groundling tickets even before I learned that they were all that was left. She quickly agreed to my proposal, possibly because there was a Starbucks across the street, and we were set!
We started our experience of standing through a performance in the Globe Theatre in the only way that made sense: by walking for around twenty kilometers. Before showing up at the theatre, we spent the day walking from Brick Lane to Parliament to Southwark. The inclusion of this detail is really a piece of foreshadowing; it will become highly important around the second hour of the performance.
As we toured the grounds earlier in the day, we began mentally conditioning ourselves to be crammed into the yard with hundreds of other people craning their necks and shifting positions to get the best view and blocking ours in the process. We had numerous minor concerns, not least among them how we (and everyone else) were going to hold in our flatulence for three straight hours. There was also the possibility of rain. Or unbearable sun. Or relentless hosts of pigeons.
We arrived around 45 minutes before the performance with the hope of finding a place to plant ourselves that minimized our concerns. After grabbing a beer, because it wouldn’t be authentic Shakespeare without a bit of alcohol involved, we found the perfect spot against a wall with a clear view of the stage. It would shelter us slightly from the potential vagaries of rain, sun and pigeons while providing a place to lean against, stretch out, and scratch our backs on the rough wood. As the play began and the witches sang, danced and crawled their way across the stage, I barely noticed my feet. I was in the Globe watching a Shakespeare performance! No aches or pains would be hindering my experience!
The purpose of sharing this isn’t really to review the Globe Theatre Company’s performance of Macbeth. They changed the gender of a few characters and modified the witches’ role, which I would have preferred to remain more like the original, but who am I to judge? One part of the performance that I particularly enjoyed was how the actors involved the audience. I must confess, I yelled “Hail Macbeth” with probably a little too much enthusiasm. I also probably would have teared up during the moving rendition of the “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” soliloquy had someone’s phone not gone off. Twice! Jerk.
Anyhow, by Act 3, the part of the Globe Theatre experience that dominated my attention with authoritarian severity was my feet. They screamed and protested so much I was concerned that other people might shush them. I shuffled. I stomped. I stood on one foot and then the other. I leaned back on the wall and then leaned forward so far I could smell the Head and Shoulders shampoo on the person in front of me. I seriously contemplated breaking house rules and plopping but buttocks on the ground just to give my complaining tootsies a bit of a break. I am ashamed to admit that I breathed a sigh of relief when the intermission began. With a sigh, I dropped to the ground, de-shoed myself and basked in the simple glory of not standing.
As our fellow groundlings filed out of the yard, I had an epiphany moment: we had the advantage of attending a play that coincided with the Euro Cup Final. I quickly realized that many of our fellow groundlings were permanently fleeing in search of a television screen, which left significantly more room for our legs, feet, backs and bodies in general. Hallelujah! My feet still complained as the actors returned to the stage, but I had a new secret weapon: more room!
The final acts of Macbeth were much more enjoyable because I could move around, stretch my shoulders, and pass wind without fear of reprisals. As the cast took their bows, my feet finally gave in. Dani and I collapsed for almost 30 minutes on a bench outside along the Thames as we discussed the play, drank some water and wiggled the cramps out of our toes.
I am happy to have experienced a Shakespeare play as a “groundling.” There was something inimitable and timeless about watching Macbeth in similar fashion to most of Shakespeare’s sixteenth and seventeenth century audience members. As I watched Macbeth’s downfall on the stage while standing in the yard of The Globe, I wasn’t just entertained; I felt like I was part of something eternal. My feet felt like they would be in pain eternally as well.
Standing in the Globe Theatre yard for Macbeth was an enriching experience that was the highlight of our short visit to London. BUT, next time I’m in England, I’ll be booking a wooden seat. And paying a few extra pounds for a cushion!