Shakespeare has been quietly walking beside me for a while. Granted, most of the time as a barely shimmering specter of himself, yet always happily greeted whenever he chose to step from the shadows. It all started in high school when we were introduced to him and his poetry. A few years later, my aunt Zéna gave me a very special book, a slim and fragile softcover volume titled ‘Hamlet’, twice, as the back cover also reads ‘Hamlet’. But in Arabic, hence the back is the front. Her father, Dr. Khemiri, a Tunisian scholar, had translated the play into his mother tongue. The volume represents a cherished memory for her, while it is a lovely token of her love for me. As far back as I can remember, I have indulged in dramatic declamation, most likely mimicking our actress grandmother. On dark winter nights, she would recite poetry for us with great passion while the logs in the hearth popped to underscore her words and the dancing flames created hallows and highlights across her face. Unlike her, who at a time worked under Max Reinhardt in Berlin, I never would have wanted to act in public, only within the safe environment of family and friends. My poor sisters became victims of my late night productions in our shared bedroom where I scared them with my thespian displays under a poster of Sir Laurance Olivier and Vivian Leigh in their 1940 ‘Hamlet’. Many years later, my husband and I would see several plays each year in Stratford-upon-Avon, Ontario, Canada, the New World capital of Shakespearian culture. Nothing compares to a stage production, to the emotions of real-life humans speaking those well-loved words with palpable intensity.
For two reasons, I shall never forget our last festival visit during the 2000 Stratford season. We had first-row tickets and were shown the way toward our seats by an usher. Arriving at the bottom of the steep rise of the auditorium, we had to turn right and walk along the edge of the orchestra pit for just a few steps to our designated seats. There was no banister and somehow, I never quite understood why or how I stumbled and fell backward into the pit below. As a rider, I’ve fallen off horses plenty of times and the toughest part of being thrown is the impact when your back hits the ground and all air is forcibly expelled from your lungs, leaving you with a brief period of suffocation anxiety. This was similar. With the added value of a bunch of strangers gawking down at me as I lay helpless on my back like a beetle about to be crushed by a giant’s foot. Eventually, a couple of volunteers helped me to my seat and the play commenced.
And this play, the play that followed my extracurricular melodrama, was a truly memorable experience. The main event that year was ‘Hamlet’, one of Shakespeare’s more annoying plays. The main character, you see, keeps dithering about, driving me to distraction. Hamlet was to be portrayed by Mr. Paul Michael Gross, OC, a Canadian actor, writer, producer, director and also a well-known singer. We had previously seen Paul Gross in a very funny and quite unusual TV program called ‘Due South’ about a Royal Canadian Mounty and his white, deaf, lip-reading wolf-dog Diefenbaker, whereby the wolf was the funny character and Gross his straight man. That year in Stratford, with Mr. Gross’ interpretation, for the first and only time, I actually enjoyed the play. A Hamlet that makes you chuckle is a rare thing indeed!
Now, sixteen years later, we are in London and I am looking forward to another Shakespeare play, Romeo and Juliet at the Garrick Theatre. Not because of the main characters, no, because of Mercutio, a character in the play portrayed by Sir Derek Jacoby. He has long been my favorite actor and I really don’t care which role he plays, as long as I have an opportunity to observe his performance. I may even wait at the stage door for an autograph like a giggly groupie!
Meanwhile, though, we prepared to find what little is left of the original Globe theater. I read that during an archeological excavation in the 1980ies some ancient remnants of a foundation were found and positively identified as belonging to the Globe, which was pulled down in 1644 during the no-entertainment-allowed Cromwellian era and replaced by tenements. On the internet, I had seen a picture of what appeared to be a curved granite plaque inserted among the cobblestones of a parking lot and protected by a wrought iron fence. Ironically, the Globe excavation couldn’t be completed because a Georgian Terrace, itself under protection as a historic building, covered the remaining presumptive Globe foundation. The article gave the location as 68 – 70 Southwark Bridge Road near Park Street. I plotted the best connection to the Tube station, Borough, and then we walked from there through the interesting London borough of Southwark, it’s long and varied history going back quite a few years.
In the article I read, it seemed to indicate that the Globe foundation marker is located behind a line of row houses. So we peeked into narrow alleys and courtyards without discovering the desired granite curve. We stumbled across a number of reminders of Dickens, this being the neighborhood of his sad youth, but no indices that the Bard ever walked these cobblestones.
I finally descended the rickety wooden stairs to the souterrain sales room of an art printing shop smelling strongly of paint and acetone. The fellow working at the counter had never heard of the Globe anywhere near there, but a woman in the back understood what I meant and fetched a map to show me where the site might be. On the way, we encountered a very sad looking Christmas tree and a most elegant looking high rise called the Shard.
As we were floundering about in the possible vicinity of The Globe site, a kind Englishman with superb local knowledge beckoned us to follow him. He quickly guided us to the historical site, clearly marked yet well hidden behind the iron fence I had seen in the picture on the internet.
With a smile on my face for having found “The Globe” site, after all, we walked back on Park Street toward Shakespeare’s Globe, the modern recreation of the original.
Along the way, we saw this and that,
and passed the open door of the Rose Theatre. The Rose Theatre?
Another Elizabethan Theatre? One about which we were ignorant? On the other hand, the ‘Rose Theatre’ did sound somewhat, almost, possibly familiar. The posted sign indicated guided tours on Saturdays, and since it was Friday afternoon, we were about to walk on when someone popped from the foyer and invited us in. Oh, she said, never mind, during the summer we also do Open House Fridays. Perfect.
We paid our fees and stumbled onto a very dark stage. Was it a stage? Or was it a viewing platform overlooking what appeared to be an underground pond with LED lit outlines? As a biologist, I’m quite familiar with species of the dark. Sightless cave dwellers and such, but I had hitherto never encountered actors performing against the reflective surface of such gently sloshing secret shores.
What wonders present themselves against expectation! We gave ourselves over to the guidance of Suzanne, mesmerizing sprite of this underworld.
Our elf imparted intimate news regarding the Rose Theatre, first-ever purpose-built theater  on Bankside, for which Christopher Marlow was one of their important playwrights. Edward Alleyn acted at The Rose, and maybe William Shakespeare as well, who knows, perchance in one of his own plays! Suzanne then invited one of us to be her foil, to be Orlando against her Rosalind on these creaky boards.
And as we liked it to be part of her game, Suzanne told us about the accidental discovery of the Rose Foundation, the partial archeological excavation, the civic actions to save the site from developers, and she explained the plans for a glorious projected future of the theater. Just consider that the foundations of this building have rested unbeknownst in mud and slush for over 400 years. Currently, the archeological site is submerged again for preservation, which explains the underground lake. Above this space, by the way, is a modern-day building. Do check on their website to find out how you could support the effort of rebuilding this unique playhouse for future generations.
Before taking our leave we snapped pictures of and with our docent and fellow audience members and performers.
P.S. My dear friends, I have just come home from an evening at the Garrick Theatre, seeing “Romeo and Juliet”. Director Sir Kenneth Branagh originally cast Scotsman Richard Madden as the male lead, who unfortunately injured his ankle jogging. You may know him better as Robb Stark in the Game of Thrones. Robb’s understudy, actor Tom Hanson also injured himself, which necessitated the understudy’s understudy to step into the breach.
As such, Mr. Freddie Fox did himself and his clan of FoxFamily thespians proud with his portrayal of lovelorn Romeo. He gave the audience a heartwrenching, youthful and emotional performance, as a Romeo should. Well done, Freddie! I for one will never forget his father, Edward Fox, in his defining role as the assassin in the 1973 movie “The Day of the Jackal”. Spine-tingling!!
As you know, I had hoped to get Sir Derek Jacobi’s autograph after the performance, but he left the theater immediately after his character’s demise. Pitty. I had to have a glass of bubbly during intermission to get over the disappointment ….