Changing London

London’s theatre scene crosses the Thames – Shakespeare on Bankside

Britain’s weather can be miserable, even in the summer months. Planning any public event in the open air runs the risk of visitors getting extremely wet from a freakish downpour or freezing cold during an artic chill. So why on earth would anyone decide to open a new theatre where audiences are, quite literally, exposed to the elements?

The Globe on Bankside – which was finally opened in 1997 – was not of course a completely new idea. The American born actor Sam Wanamaker campaigned for years to build a replica of the famous Elizabethan playhouse that was built on a nearby site in 1599 and where some of William Shakespeare’s plays, such as Hamlet, Twelfth Night, Othello, King Lear and Macbeth, were first performed.

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Model on display at the Globe depicting the original theatre

Wanamaker – perhaps the biggest Shakespeare enthusiast of all time – was astonished to find that the Globe was remembered by little more than a plaque in the middle of a former brewery when he arrived in London in 1949. “Underneath the plaque was a large pile or garbage, which seemed to sum up the situation,” he said before his death. “I simply could not imagine why the British had done nothing else to mark the site.”

The actor thought it would take little more than a year or two to get a replica built, but he faced a huge uphill struggle for it to be completed. One deputy leader of Southwark Council said: “Shakespeare is tosh”, while another person thought the Globe was going to be little more than a “painted brothel on Bankside”. Part of the opposition came down to the fact that some thought new housing should be built on the site, rather than a tourist attraction. And the local authority itself worried because they couldn’t see where else they could park road sweepers’ casts. And by 1990 the Globe project was £2m in debt and the foundations were flooded.

Given all the delays, unfortunately Wanamaker didn’t get to see the completed Globe. He died in 1993, aged 74, but it wasn’t until 1997 that it opened.

“When the Globe reopened, people thought it would be a financial disaster, and that no one would want to visit such a place, to stand for three hours to watch a Shakespeare [play], to sit on hard benches, to be unprotected from the rain, to watch theatre without sets or lighting or sound,” Dominic Dromgoole, artistic director at the Globe told Catharine Arnold for her latest book, Globe. “No one thought it would succeed. But the doors opened, and people flocked in.”

Guided tours take visitors inside the reconstructed playhouse, built using traditional construction techniques using green oak timber and lime plaster, as well as boasting a thatched roof – the latter is the first to be granted planning permission since the Great Fire of London in 1666 (it includes a sophisticated sprinkler system which is capable quickly of drenching the building). The stage is covered by a roof – ornately painted underneath with depictions of the Heavens – and held up by two large pillars.

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Inside the Globe, as seen on a guided tour

While three thousand people watched plays at the theatre in in Shakespeare’s day, it is only licensed for one thousand two hundred today given the introduction of stringent fire regulations. Standing in the exposed groundling area (where tickets used to cost one penny and nowadays are £5), immediately in front of the stage, it’s hard to imagine that one thousand people alone crammed into this area. Those who stood here were known as ‘penny stinkers’ because of the price they had paid and the fact that they may not have washed for months. They couldn’t get out to go to the toilet during performances, so they just relieved themselves wherever they were.

For those that could afford it, visitors would have a better experience sitting in one of the galleries, which were covered. But having sat on a replica bench I imagine these too would become pretty uncomfortable – even if audiences then, (as is still the case now), borrow cushions.

The most expensive seats in the house were on a raised balcony above the actual stage. People sitting here didn’t come to watch the play however – they would have been extremely wealthy and may simply have played cards during the performance. The position in full view of the audience meant they could have ‘been seen’ by as many people as possible. Today, in the reconstructed Globe, it is not possible to sit in these spots as they often form part of the performance area for plays.

After the tour and exploring the fascinating exhibition charting the story of the original Globe and its re-birth, it’s possible to walk some hundred metres and get a sense of where the theatre would have stood in Shakespeare’s day. Sadly much of the construction is buried under a listed Georgian housing development, but if you peer carefully behind some black railings you can see a granite line etched into a car park showing part the location of where part of one of the walls would have stood. The remains in this section are carefully preserved two metres underground.

Well-planned operation

But even when the Globe opened in 1599 it wasn’t completely new as it was built using timber from the Theatre, which as I wrote in my last blog had opened in Shoreditch in 1576. When Richard and Cuthbert Burbage – sons of James, the playhouse’s founder, decided there was no chance of settling a dispute with their landlord over rent (and even pull it down), they opted to take it down timber by timber, and rebuild it on Bankside.

It was a well-planned operation, carried out at night in an attempt to avoid detection, with the help of a carpenter called Peter Street, players from the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and an army of volunteers. The timbers were loaded onto barges at Bridewell Stairs and transported across the Thames at high tide.

Arnold’s account of this operation is fascinating, noting how merely dismantling it was much harder than expected. “The original Theatre had been constructed in 1576 by the mortise and tenon method, with each piece of timber fitting its neighbour with a tapered wooden peg, like an elaborate three-dimensional jigsaw. As each peg locked into place, the construction had become stronger and more secure. Over twenty years since the building of the Theatre, the joints had stiffened and it was difficult to take the timbers apart without splitting the wood.”

But once across the river, the challenges for the Burbages weren’t over. “The transportation of the Theatre was a great and novel concept heroically designed and executed through the dark night and cold grey dawn of midwinter,” writes Arnold. “But so too was the rebuilding work. This task must have stretched every nerve…..” William Shakespeare was one the people who helped fund the project and would take a cut of profits from the new venture.

While the new theatre sprung up quickly, the legal disputes dragged on until 1602. At the time of the operation, Alleyne’s men turned up in an attempt to stop the destruction. The landlord claimed the Burbages and helpers “did riotously take downe and carry away that said Theatre by confederacy with others armed with unlawful and offensive weapons, as namely swords, daggers, bills, axes and such like.” The Burbages were sued for £800 in damages, but the case went in their favour, rather than Alleyne’s.

Shakespeare was one of five actors who paid £10 each for a 10% share in the new theatre and the Burbages held the remaining 50% of the venture.

In May 1599, the Globe – named after the figure of Hercules carrying the globe on his back, which had parallels with Burbages’ men – was ready to open, launching with a production of Henry V. “What better choice for this magnificent new theatre than a play celebrating the life of England’s great warrior king?,” writes Arnold. “A play of epic grandeur, crammed with colourful characters, battles and romance, the perfect play for the perfect venue. The subject matter appealed to the public mood of militant patriotism and the backdrop of national unease at the time of the second Armada of 1597 (which was thwarted by bad weather), when Londoners really felt as if the Spanish were beating at their door.”

“The taste of the crowd for intermittent violence was amply satisfied by the plays themselves, while the Londoners’ natural pride in the history of their city was recognised in those dramatic pageants which were part of the diet of the playhouses,” writes Peter Ackroyd, in his book London: A biography.

Able to hold three thousand spectators, the Globe, with its white-washed walls, had three tiers of galleried seating housed under a thatched roof and built around an open yard where playgoers who wanted cheaper entry would have stood in front of the stage. Eating and drinking took place before, during and the after the performances, with beer, small apples, hazelnuts (remains of these from a nearby excavation are on display at the Globe) and tobacco available.

There is a remarkable account from Thomas Platter, a Swiss traveller, who visited the Globe in 1599 and wrote in his diary:

“After dinner, about two o’clock, I went with my companions over the water, and in the thatched playhouse saw the tragedy of the first Emperor Julius with at least 15 characters, very well acted…. The places are so built, that they play on a raised platform, and every one can well see it all. There are, however, separate galleries and there one is more comfortable, and moreover can sit, but pays more for it. Thus anyone who stays in the yard pays only one English penny: but if he wants to sit he is left in at a further door and there he gives another penny. If he desires to sit on a cushion, in the most comfortable places of all…. then he gives yet another penny. And during the performance food and drink are carried round the audience, so that for what one cares to pay one may have refreshment. The actors are most expensively and elaborately costumed; for it is the English usage for the eminent Lords or Knights at their decease to bequeath and leave almost the best of their clothes to their serving men, which it is unseemly for the latter to wear, so they offer them for sale for a small sum to the actors.”

Bankside pioneers

The Globe was by no means the first theatre to open on Bankside. Philip Henslowe and John Cholmley started the ball rolling in 1587 with the Rose, the venue where many of Shakespeare’s and Christopher Marlowe’s first productions were shown. Henslowe and his son-in-law became a formidable force in Elizabethan and Stuart London’s theatre scene, later building the Hope and the Fortune playhouses.

“Some theatres became bear-rings or boxing rings, while some cockpits and bull-rings later became theatres. There was no necessary distinction between these activities, and historians have suggested that acrobats, fencers and rope-dancers could also perform at the Globe or the Swan. Edward Alleyn, the great actor-manager of the early seventeenth century, was also the Master of the King’s Bears. The public arena was truly heterogeneous,” writes Peter Ackroyd.

Bankside developed into the main destination in London for playgoers. “Daily at two in the afternoon, London had two, sometimes three plays running in different places, competing with each other and those which play best obtain most spectators”, wrote Thomas Platter, who travelled in one of the many water taxis across to the Globe in the summer of 1599. It was a hard life being an actor since they had to remember numerous plays, lasting several hours long.

As I described in my last blog, Shakespeare was known for his contribution to the Theatre in Shoreditch, but wrote some of his greatest works while living in Southwark. His house is believed to have been at the south side of Blackfriars Bridge, a site now covered by the towering structure itself. And it was Bankside, with its ‘stews’, prostitutes and rowdy inns – where he often drank in the company of Edward Alleyn and Ben Johnson – that influenced many of his plays.

“The Bankside that Shakespeare experienced would have seen crowded tenements being built, houses divided up into apartments and gardens that were rapidly disappearing beneath extensions,” write David Brandon and Alan Brooke in their book, Bankside. “The streets and alleys were teeming with life and the area was also home to industries such as tanneries and glassworks. The growth in population attracted theatres to the area and Southwark became the home of the Globe, the Rose and the Swan. They were surrounded by a plethora of more than 300 inns and alehouses as well as other types of entertainment, that included bowling, bear-baiting and brothels. Such a rich and diverse array of pleasures and characters provided Shakespeare with much material and inspiration for his plays.”


Disaster struck for the Globe in 1613 when a theatrical canon – people loved special effects – misfired during a performance of All is True about the reign of Henry the Eighth, igniting the wooden beams and thatching. While theatre was completely destroyed, remarkably it seems no one died in the blaze and props, costumes and books belonging to the King’s Men (until they received Royal patronage from James I in 1603 they were known as the Chamberlain’s Men) were all salvaged. Henry Wotton, who provided an eye-witness account in a 1613 letter, described how the “light on the thatch, where being thought at first but idle smoke, and their eyes more attentive to the show, it kindled inwardly, and ran round like a train, consuming within less than an hour the whole house to the very ground. This was the fatal period of that virtuous fabric, where-in yet nothing did perish but wood and straw, and a few forsaken cloaks; only one man had his breeches set on fire, that would perhaps have broyled him, if he had not by the benefit of a provident wit, put it out with a bottle of ale.”

The theatre was rebuilt at a cost of about £1400 the following year, with a Londoner called John Chamberlain writing a few days after its opening: “I hear much speech of this new playhouse, which is said to be the fairest that ever was in England.”

But “I feel that Shakespeare never entirely recovered from this catastrophe,” writes Arnold. “While Shakespeare continued to work in the rebuilt Globe, he wrote less, and operated more as a script doctor, spending increasing periods of time back in Stratford-upon-Avon, where he died in 1616.”

Parliament supressed all stage plays in 1642 because “it was said people had seen enough public tragedy and no longer required any dramatic version; instead theatrical entertainments were performed clandestinely or under cover of some other activity,” according to Ackroyd. After two years of lying empty, the Globe was demolished in 1644 and landowner Sir Matthew Brend built tenement houses on the site.

When theatres made an official return after the Restoration, they were instead established across the Thames in Drury Lane and Dorset Gardens and were, according to Samuel Pepys “a thousand times better and more glorious than ever before.” Inside these new buildings, he added that “now all things civil, no rudeness anyway.” Although the unruly playgoers didn’t completely disappear – some unruly citizens pelt fruit at the stage and the audience, and just generally make a noise.

As for the Globe, the History and Antiquities of St Saviour’s, stated in 1795 that “the passage which led to the Globe Tavern, of which the playhouse formed a part, was, till within these years, known by the name of Globe Alley, and upon its site now stands a large storehouse for porter.”


As if having a reconstruction of the Globe open wasn’t enough, in January 2014 a 340-seat indoor performance space called the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse was opened alongside it on Bankside. Lit by candles and therefore requiring a sophisticated smoke detection system, it is based on drawings thought to be have been produced by Philip Webb around 1660 of a venue similar to the Blackfriars which was demolished in 1655. For many years, the same company used the Blackfriars venue during the winter months (and was relied upon until the Globe was back up and running following the major fire in 1613).

Visiting the Globe complex is a rewarding experience whatever time of year it is. As well as the two reconstructed theatres and education space, the Swan is wonderful bar and restaurant overlooking the Thames and St Paul’s Cathedral. Sitting on the outside terrace on a warm summer’s evening, it is the perfect spot to consider how different – or indeed similar – to those who came to Bankside in Shakespeare’s day to be entertained.

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Site of the original Globe – now a car park

Categories: Changing London

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