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Shakespeare's Globe in London: history, theatres, Shakespeare shows and more

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

“May we cram/Within this wooden O the very casques/That did affright the air at Agincourt?” The wooden o in that quote from Henry V refers to a round, oak, open-air venue: London’s Globe Theatre, built in 1599 by Shakespeare’s acting company the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.

And it is that Globe playhouse which is so wonderfully honoured today by Shakespeare’s Globe, an impeccable reconstruction that gives audiences the sensation of sitting in a 16th-century playing space, watching the Bard’s work in the way that it was originally consumed.

So, what’s the history of the Globe, which incredible actors have performed there, and what shows can you book for in the current summer season? Read on for our definitive guide.

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When was Shakespeare’s Globe built?

We have the American actor and director Sam Wanamaker (father of Zoë Wanamaker) to thank for the Globe. He’d observed that although there were several replicas of the theatre in the United States, in London – on the actual site of this legendary Bankside space – we only had a measly plaque. In 1970, Wanamaker founded the Shakespeare Globe Trust and raised over $10 million in order to fulfil his dream of creating a Globe theatre and museum.

However, the complicated project took two decades to complete: Shakespeare’s Globe didn’t officially open until 1997. With the help of historical advisor John Orrell, and countless hours of research, Wanamaker pieced together a faithful design that reflected the Globe as it existed in Shakespeare’s day – as well as using some details of the second Globe theatre, built in the same spot in 1614 after a fire destroyed the first one. Those practical additions included the external staircases.

The new Globe is made of oak, with lime-plaster walls and a water-reed thatched roof. Technically, the original “wooden o” was a multi-sided polygon; the modern version has 20 sides. It features a thrust stage and an open-air central yard, where audience members can stand and watch, as well as seating in galleries on several levels surrounding them. Performers frequently join the spectators in the yard (known as “Groundlings”) during a show – interactivity is a huge part of Globe performances.

What is the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse?

In 2014, the Globe added an indoor theatre: the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. This exquisitely designed, intimate space is modelled on the candlelit theatres in London that would have been in use during Shakespeare’s time – like the Blackfriars Playhouse. It’s lit by more than 100 beeswax candles, and has an elaborate painted ceiling mural based on the 17th-century mural in stately home Cullen House in Scotland.

Like the open-air Globe, it’s made primarily of oak and has a thrust stage with a musician’s gallery above, plus bench seating and surrounding galleries. However, as it’s an indoor space, it can continue the Globe’s programming throughout the winter months.

Who runs Shakespeare’s Globe, and who has performed there?

The great Mark Rylance was the Globe’s first artistic director. He was followed by Dominic Dromgoole in 2006, and then Emma Rice in 2016. Rice’s tenure was short and controversial: the Globe’s board objected to her using non-authentic lighting and sound in the theatre in her bold productions. The current artistic director is actress Michelle Terry.

Terry also performs in many shows at the Globe. Most recently, she was an acclaimed Viola in Twelfth Night, she played the title role in Hamlet, and she starred opposite her real-life husband Paul Ready in Macbeth.

Rylance, too, has been a frequent – and hugely memorable – performer at the Globe. His Olivia in Twelfth Night (with Stephen Fry as Malvolio) was enthralling, and he played a nihilistic Iago opposite Moonlight’s André Holland in Othello, among many others.

Shakespeare’s Globe has attracted numerous great actors to its unique playing space over the years, such as Charles Edwards and Eve Best in Much Ado About Nothing, Jamie Parker as Prince Hal and Henry V, Gina McKee as Boudica, Gemma Arterton in The Duchess of Malfi, Jonathan Pryce in The Merchant of Venice, and Roger Allam in The Tempest. As well as every single Shakespeare play in the canon, the theatre has staged other work and premiered many exciting new plays, some of which have had a further life in the West End and beyond – like Nell Gwynn and Emilia.

What can Shakespeare’s Globe audiences expect?

There’s nothing quite like the Globe. It’s an incredibly atmospheric and immersive space, and you get a real thrill from seeing a Shakespeare play there, imagining his audiences sitting where you are now and watching in very similar conditions.

However, there are some practical considerations. Since it’s an open-air theatre, you’re subject to the changeable British weather – so wear layers. It’s particularly fun to be a ‘groundling’, getting close to the action on stage and interacting with performers in the yard, but that means you really are open to the elements: remember to bring a hat and sun cream on a hot day, and a raincoat on a showery one.

You can rent cushions to make the wooden bench seating more comfortable, or bring your own extra padding – a cushion or something like a large coat or blanket. You can also enrich your Globe experience by taking a tour of the theatre, learning more about the space and about Shakespeare.

What Shakespeare’s Globe shows can you book for now?

The Globe has an exciting, varied season for winter 2022. Discover the similarities between 15th-century France and 21st-century Britain in a chilling adaptation of Henry V. An all-female cast then star in Titus Andronicus, adapted and directed by Jude Christian. And in a first for the Globe, The Winter's Tale will be told over both spaces: Shakespeare's Globe and the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse.

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