Saturday, 14 August 2010
I knew my place. I learned to love theatre from the gods. I can still conjure up the smell of those side entrances to theatres and the plain, uncarpeted stairways that seemed to go on for ever. My early theatrical experiences included a panoramic view of the more-expensively seated audience, comfortable on red plush. But my favourite performers seemed to reach over the permed and lacquered hair of the wealthy to speak directly to the longing, needy hearts of the poor on their benches. I was convinced that shows were aimed directly at the inhabitants of the gods. The rich clapped politely but we yearned, cried, gasped and almost swooned in rapture. How could the actors not love us?
Later I began to criticise and analyse. But I still cherished the moments of awe and hope before the play began, as members of the audience shuffled into their seats, waiting for the lights to dim. The audience – at least, its richer members – was part of the spectacle and the actors shouted or whispered their words over the heads of the rich.
Of course, I knew that things had once been different. It was, I think, the Victorians who placed a distance between the actors and the poorer members of the audience. It's hard to generalise - I don't know enough about the difference between patent houses (the few theatres permitted by law to perform the plays of Shakespeare) and minor theatres (the home of musical theatre and burlesque), let alone the details of such wonderfully-named popular theatres as the blood-tubs and the penny gaffs. I suspect it was the posh theatres that pushed the poor up the bleak side stairs to the gods and turned the rich theatre-goers into part of the spectacle. There have probably always been small theatres charging a single price for all tickets. It took me a while to discover the joys of what were, in my youth, called “studio theatres.” I've been to many and enjoyed their intimacy.
But, having finally visited the reconstructed Globe, I realise that I'd never really imagined what it would have been like to attend an Elizabethan or Jacobean theatre – or to be part of what Alexander Pope calls, with contempt, “the many-headed monster of the pit.” Of course, I had to be a groundling - I didn't feel I'd belong in any other part of the theatre. So, clutching my £5 ticket, I joined the groundlings' queue – a friend had advised me to arrive early to be sure of a good space.
I'd always planned to see Shakespeare at the Globe – it seemed an obvious decision. But it had taken me so many years to organise a ticket and an afternoon that I ended up booking for a new play with an early Tudor setting – Howard Brenton's Anne Boleyn. I was a little embarrassed about this until a fellow groundling pointed out the sense of my decision – the original Globe had, after all, been a place where new plays had been performed.
My fellow groundlings were a welcoming crowd. I've always found a great deal of comradeship among people who queue for cheap seats at plays, operas and concerts. I was lucky to be among regulars, who assured me that watching as a groundling was the best experience the theatre had to offer. They also compared experiences of bad weather. The worst had been a hailstorm during a performance of Macbeth – groundlings are hardy folk and few left. The play also achieved more humour than is customary as the playgoers roared their approval at the repeated greeting “All hail.”
As advised, I found myself a space near the stage – something to lean on should I need it and a good opportunity to be close to the action – and the actors' feet. This could have been disconcerting but the play was written for the Globe and the actors knew how to use the theatre. Before the show started, some of them knelt down to engage the groundlings in conversation. Then, as the play started, in broad daylight (as in Shakespeare's time), the actors ensured that the audience was involved, sometimes pausing to share a joke or addressing us directly. While I didn't suspend my critical faculties (and it would be hard to do so from such a position) I also knew that I was part of the experience – even part of the performance.
At the same time, the play was literally over my head. While the audience seated in the stalls of a modern theatre occupy a position of power, much like the interviewer who sits watching the performance of a succession of nervous candidates, the groundlings stand at the feet of the actors and below the level of the audience in the galleries behind them. While I followed the plot with interest, particularly enjoying the discussion of Tyndale's theology and the problems of Bible translation from the Greek, I had a sneaking suspicion that I was not supposed to follow this from where I was standing – that the theatre building itself assumed my ignorance and inferiority.
Looking back, I'm surprised that I didn't mind this. But I slipped more happily into the role of poor, ignorant theatre-goer than I would have expected. I didn't feel half the discomfort I still experience when, by chance or luck, I find myself in the posh seats surrounded by people who seem to take wealth and privilege. I belong with the groundlings.
And I really liked the play.