This weekend, in recognition of ‘Shakespeare400’ (400 years since Ol’ Will’s death) London was treated to not one, not two but all thirty-seven Shakespeare plays – for free! Because after all, though the bard was born and bread 100 miles ‘up the road’ in Stratford Upon Avon, It was in London that he made a name for himself, as the poet and playwright we celebrate today.
It would take a lot more than a weekend of course to watch The Bard’s theatrical works in full, so The Globe Theatre helpfully broke them down for us, into thirty-seven bite-size morels of theatre deliciousness. Somewhere between the pageantry of medieval street theater and the convenience of drive through (or rather ‘walk in’) movie theatres, the Globe Theatre Walk saw thirty-seven screens erected along a 2.5 mile length of the South Bank. Stretched between The London Eye and Tower Bridge with the Globe itself somewhere around the halfway point, Londoners and curious visitors from the world over were free to walk the length and take in as much or as little as they fancied, whether that be a dose or a full marathon. I went up to investigate…
I have to say first and foremost, that in my heart and mind, a screen is no replacement for the real, live theatrical article and when I first heard about the walk I was a little aghast that there was no live element to the festival. However, it grew on me. This was mostly owing to the fact that the films themselves were so diverse, creative and beautiful. Mixing together a range of specially made footage, live Globe theatre recordings and vintage silent film clips with commentary, quotations and original text, allowed the films to show many different angles, perspectives and styles in a small space of time, bringing new interpretations to light as well as aptly commemorating Shakespeare’s performance legacy. Some of the films aimed to document the story of the play end to end, but I found them at their most effective when instead they showed a more in depth ‘moment’ in the course of the play. A sizable chunk, rather than simply skimming the surface. The short film for Hamlet was a particularly striking example, using text only from the soliloquys but spoken from the perspective of five different actors. This offered a detailed character study into Hamlet’s mind and was a really engaging and unique piece of theatre in its own right.
Although all the clips were interesting and insightful, the specially recorded scenes, of which the Hamlet was one, particularly peaked my interest. The Globe had taken the time, care and expense to film scenes for each film in their originally intended context. To name just a few; Hamlet was filmed in Elsinore, Othello in Cyprus, Timon of Athens in the Athenian Acropolis and somewhat closer to home, Richard III in the Tower of London and John Falstaff having a pint and a packet of crisps in the Southwark Tavern down the road! Each of these scenes had high production values and a stellar cast, with the likes of Simon Russell Beale, Peter Capaldi… (full cast list here) all appearing across different films as part of the project. It would simply have been impossible to offer such diversity in live performance across the weekend, so for that the Globe are forgiven. It was magical (if maybe a little cruel) to be whisked away in spirit to the warm sands of Barbados for screen #37’s showing of The Tempest, when by this point we were damp and cold from the persistent wind and rain! Seeing Cleopatra’s pain played out before the Great Pyramid’s was also especially evocative.
The short films also offered flexibility in their watchability. Theatre in small doses it turns out, is surprisingly addictive! The action of walking between each offered an entirely different experience from the alternative of playing them all out, one after the other, movie-marathon style. It offered the opportunity to process each film, giving it the thought it deserved and stretching the mind as well as the legs between screens. It is in my mind also an action against the box-set culture whereby we watch but don’t engage, simply waiting to be shown more autonomously and not choosing what we consume. The walk offered a rich wealth of content, but with the freedom to explore and pick and choose. Alternatively, is the 10 minute time limit on each play symptomatic of our concentration levels? After 10 minutes (or less, depending on when they joined) were the audiences that gathered bored and ready to move on? I don’t believe so, as people lingered beyond the credits to catch up on what they missed. From my perspective, each clip was just enough to leave you wanting more.
The Globe are to be congratulated, I think, on this bold (new?) display of theatre, which has metaphorically opened the arms of Shakespeare’s work and spread them wide. Of course the weekend was not entirely without its problems. Many die-hards, myself included, were aggrieved to find our collection of the full thirty-seven could not be completed due to technical difficulties (did anyone out there manage to catch Coriolanus of Henry V?) whilst some sites competed with environmental difficulties – thundering trains, echoey tunnels and London’s over- zealous buskers all had a part to play. It was also disheartening to see the unmoved passing through, disregarding the opportunity completely. London, ever over-saturated, was also playing host to celebrations for St George’s Day and the London Marathon this weekend. I like to think that just maybe for every one that walked past, one stopped. Regardless, theatre out in the open with the potential to capture the public imagination can only be a good thing. I understand that there was some difficulty in the set-up, as there so often is when trying something new, but perhaps, this will be the start of something that spreads!