Inside "The Wooden O": Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors and Julius Caesar at the New Globe
James Fisher
Wabash College

Fisher, James. "Inside "The Wooden O": Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors and Julius Caesar at the New Globe." Early Modern Literary Studies 5.3 (January, 2000): 17.1-19 <URL:

How many ages hence
Shall this our lofty scene be acted over
In states unborn, and accents yet unknown!

--Cassius, Julius Caesar. Act Three, Scene One

  1. In the two years since the opening of the New Globe Theatre, a reconstruction of Shakespeare's original Globe based on the surviving historical (and mostly circumstantial) evidence, it has operated on London's South Bank with mixed success near the recently uncovered archaeological ruins of two Elizabethan playhouses, the Rose and Shakespeare's original Globe. The dream of the late Sam Wanamaker, the New Globe offers a unique opportunity for scholars and general audiences to examine performance traditions of the Elizabethan stage and the ways in which they illuminate aspects of Shakespeare's oeuvre. Audiences have flocked to the new Globe but critics have remained decidedly lukewarm to some of its initial productions. A few have even gone so far as to suggest that the theater is little more than an Elizabethan-Jacobean theme park offering a quality of production that is inconsistent at best. Two 1999 productions, The Comedy of Errors and Julius Caesar, illuminate both the strengths and the problems of presenting Shakespeare's plays in a recreation of its original environment, and also go some distance in dispelling quality criticisms. While neither production could be described as definitive, both are lively and intelligently staged and, best of all, make maximum use of the Globe's distinct theatrical characteristics.

  2. The Globe certainly provides support facilities one might expect to find at a theme park: two restaurants, gift stalls, exhibits, a modern box office, and other amenities are attached to the theater by a pleasant open-air courtyard overlooking the Thames, with St. Paul's Cathedral looming over the city across the river. The Globe's surrounding environs are attractive, despite being at close quarters with warehouses and other businesses. Within a year, the Tate Gallery will move its modern art collection to a huge warehouse being renovated for it near the Globe, and London's underground system will open a new Jubilee line tube stop close to the theatre, greatly improving access to the Globe's wonders.

  3. And the wonders are significant for scholars and general audiences. Aside from its emphasis on Shakespeare's plays, the Globe has committed itself to productions of works by other Elizabethan-Jacobean playwrights. Staged readings or productions of plays by Thomas Middleton, Ben Jonson, and John Fletcher have already been presented, as well as related visiting international productions such as a recent Kathakali version of King Lear.

  4. The New Globe has been reconstructed not only to look as the original Globe presumably looked, but construction methods and materials used to build it were approximate to those in use in Shakespeare's day. Wooden beams are pegged into place (no nails are visible), and the galleries and tiring house are covered with thatch, the first such roof permitted in London since the Great Fire in the late seventeenth century -- the addition of sprinkler system over the roof is a nod to contemporary safety concerns. Plaster walls inside and out are made from the same recipe employed in Elizabethan times, although goat hair replaces the required cow hair -- due to centuries of dietary changes, modern cows apparently do not grow coats hairy enough after four-hundred years. Stage pillars are elaborately painted to resemble marble columns and, like other painted decorative embellishments, are in accordance with the sketchy historical evidence. It is Shakespeare al fresco and the spectator entering the Globe steps into an environment at once familiar and mysterious, past and present. Its success or failure as a living performance space depends completely on the ability of spectators to adapt themselves to unfamiliar conventions. The resulting wonderment created by the Globe is not dissimilar to that of the charming depiction of the Rose Theatre in the recent popular film, Shakespeare in Love (1998).

  5. Under the guidance of artistic director Mark Rylance, who starred in the theatre's highly-publicized opening production of Henry V in 1997, the Globe's permanently fixed structure calls upon skills actors, directors, and designers have rarely needed in the centuries since most brands of western theatre moved permanently indoors. Aside from floodlights employed to illuminate night performances there are no "artistic" lighting effects and little scenery, aside from the Globe's ornate and permanent stage platform and tiring house. The actor must project his unamplified voice over the continual external noises of everything from jets flying overhead to boats floating down the Thames, while attempting to reach the highest of the Globe's three tiers of gallery benches. Actors are at a decided disadvantage in creating subtle effects of voice and movement, but a good director will devise ways to turn the problems of the New Globe into advantages through a thorough understanding of how this theatre space functioned in Shakespeare's day -- and what that understanding might lead to in increased understanding of the plays.

  6. The first thing that becomes obvious about the Globe in performance is that it eliminates the phony naturalism of so much twentieth century theatre. Modern productions of Shakespeare tend to shrink his plays down from the great poetic, imaginative dreams that they are to the more prosaic level of kitchen-sink realism. The Globe's singular stage offers a blank cube of raw theatrical space that cries out for an artifice that is blatant and unapologetic, as it almost certainly was in Shakespeare's day. The audience is required to listen in a different way, and the elimination of all but minimal stage props and scenic effects places the emphasis squarely on the actor and the word. Spectators standing in the pit or seated on hard benches in the gallery are visible in the daylight and there is a constant feeling of motion that animates the geometries of the theatre's space. The space itself demands a flexible and unpretentious audience; there is no art-house elitism at the Globe, it is the ultimate populist theatre.

  7. Is the Globe an avant-garde experiment or merely a pedantic scholarly exercise? The 1999 productions of The Comedy of Errors and Julius Caesar indicate that it is something of both. In Staging Shakespeare at the New Globe (New York: St. Martin's Press, Inc., 1999), the first book devoted exclusively to the Globe's productions, author Pauline Kiernan focuses exclusively on the Globe's "prologue" season in 1996, which consisted of a staging of Two Gentlemen of Verona, and the first regular season in 1997 beginning with Henry V and including The Winter's Tale, as well as Thomas Middleton's A Chaste Maid in Cheapside and John Fletcher's The Maid's Tragedy. Kiernan's book is divided into three distinct parts. Part One describes the "space of the audience" (36), focusing on the effect the close presence of the audience has on actors and how audience interaction impacts pre-planned staging and business. The actors who have played in the Globe corifirm Kiernan's opinion that although the more intrusive presence of the audience calls for elements of improvisation, it also provides a certain fluidity and freedom that is much greater than that achieved in performances of Shakespeare's plays in inherently more formal modern theatre spaces. With daylight illuminating the audience as clearly as the actors, it becomes obvious that there is a greater expectation of audience involvement than is expected of decidedly more passive audiences of contemporary productions. Kiernan also addresses the problems of creating "dramatic illusions" in an open-air theatre without the aid of modern stage technology (37-59), and continues with an examination of issues of "dramaturgy, 3-D staging, and daylight space" (60-90). In Part Two of her book, Kiernan painstakingly traces preparations, rehearsals, and the actual performances of the theatre's official opening production of Henry V. In Part Three, Kiernan has gathered reflective statements from various actors involved in the Globe's first productions. They discuss not only issues involved in performing in this space, but also problematic and challenging aspects of Shakespeare's plays as texts in performance. Kiernan's interesting combination of theatre history, literature, and performance practice provides a valuable and historically important account of the initiation of the Globe reconstruction experiment. Certainly dozens of volumes on the questions raised and answered by the Globe's space will be forthcoming, and while it may be impossible to completely recreate the experience of attending Shakespeare's Globe four hundred years ago, it is possible to catch a glimpse in productions that attempt to use the space as it might have been originally intended.

  8. Actual productions in the New Globe raise the most intriguing issues about the use of its space and production practices, both old and new. The Comedy of Errors, Shakespeare's riff on Plautus's Menaechmi and Amphitruo, is a play that features a maelstrom of mistaken identities that can either be funny or touching; few productions manage to achieve both moods. This production, viewed at a July 4, 1999 matinee, leans toward broad comedy and employs the Elizabethan concept of a Master of the Play (Kathryn Hunter) and a Master of Verse (Tim Carroll) in lieu of a single director. Hunter stresses the play's possibilities for rambunctious, knockabout farce without completely obscuring either its romantic ruminations or its ultimately moving reconciliation of a long-separated family. Two Italian actors trained in the traditions of commedia dell 'arte, Vincenzo Nicoli (Antipholus) and Marcello Magni (Dromio), play the two sets of twins with brash comic panache. For them, The Comedy of Errors is a plotless romp and the text is a mere springboard for their wild comic lunacy. To a degree, Hunter gives them free improvisatory rein, a choice that is underscored by her decision to have Nicoli and Magni play both the Ephesusian and Syracusian Antipholus and Dromio. Quick shifts between their two characters cause much amusement, although neither does much in the way of physical changes to definitively distinguish between their two characters. The fact that Magni is performing in a second language (Nicoli, though of Italian origin, is a fluent English speaker) causes some lines to be lost, but in every other way both actors are supremely gifted comics. Nicoli's Antipholus of Ephesus spends much of his time in benign bewilderment over the comic chaos caused by the unknown (to him) arrival of his long-lost twin brother from Syracuse. Nicoli's Antipholuses and Magni's Dromios come off, as one London critic described them, as a genial John Cleese with an especially clueless Manuel, but their performances also evoke eternal comic images drawn from Aristophanes and commedia dell 'arte through Shakespeare and Molière to Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and the Marx Brothers.

  9. The New Globe requires a lack of subtlety in acting; it offers the opportunity for a rougher, more direct communion between actor and audience. Hunter obviously recognizes this fact and sets about to make maximum use of the theatre's environment. Submerged in-jokes from Shakespeare's text come alive at the New Globe, as when Dromio describes a gargantuan kitchen maid who is in romantic pursuit of him. "She is," he says, "spherical like a globe," and he follows this with a knowing look about the theatre to the delight of the audience. Other amusing staging choices are made to address the close proximity of audience members in the pit. Egeon's trial takes place at the front of the stage, with the old man standing among the groundlings defending himself from threatened execution. Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse arrive via a mock boat that winds its way through the pit, causing bystanders to have to create a path for them. (Figure 1) This informality encourages the actors and the director to pursue delightfully low comic business. The duel between Antipholus and Bathazar is not fought with swords, but with rubber chickens, and other irresistible cheap laughs dot the action of the play. The outstanding comic set piece is an hilarious tennis match between Antipholus and Dromio that not only underscores and emphasizes the dialogue being delivered by them, but makes an immediate connection for audience members who undoubtedly watched Wimbledon matches on television that very morning. When the impromptu match, which includes Magni triumphantly holding a silver tray aloft as his trophy, ends, Nicoli grumbles, "I knew t'would be a bald conclusion," and in response, Magni whips around to display his own shining bald pate.

  10. Hunter has chosen an Arabian-accented environment, setting the play in Turkey and making Ephesus a place of mysticism and exotic appeal. There is a mysterious "otherness" created that provides this production with an environment that is impressive in itself. Costumes are colourful, the live music composed by Mià Soteriou and played from the tiring house gallery underscores the visual scheme with its rhythms, and the few modest scenic embellishments added to change locations around the town of Ephesus are effectively deployed. Adriana, Antipholus of Ephesus's shrewish wife, is played with vibrance by Yolanda Vazquez, but her comparatively few scenes can hardly compete with the inspired clowning by Nicoli and Magni. Jules Melvin is a robust Luciana, Robert Pickavance a doddenng Egeon, and Martin Turner cuts an imposing figure as the Duke. Among the remaining players, Avril Clark stands out in her poignant portrayal of the Abbess who subsequently is revealed to be the long lost wife of Egeon and mother of the twin brothers.

  11. Despite the slapstick nature of the production, Hunter and Carroll also pay close attention to the text. Even with the occasional difficulties in understanding Nicoli and Magni, the dialogue comes through vividly and the more serious aspects of the play manage to assert themselves. The grief of the separated family members and the darker confusions growing out of the loss of self caused by the mistaken identities are certainly given second place in this production, but still surface at particular points, especialiy in the last scene, with surprising potency. The somewhat abrupt happy ending of The Cornedy of Errors can seem implausible in more serious productions of the play, but in a broadly comic depiction it is a most satisfying conclusion and underscores a connection to the beauty of Shakespeare's later, more sophisticated romances. When the entire cast ends the performance in a joyous dance, the attendant ovation from the spectators suggests that the profoundest connection between actor and audience has happened.

  12. Among its many other attributes, the New Globe unleashes the viewer's understanding of Shakespeare's unparalleled skills as a storyteller. Even with the movement and noise of an outdoor performance, the loss of actor subtleties due to the theatre's size, the lack of electronic amplification, and the dwarfing of the human figure on the tall Globe stage, Shakespeare's characters, language, and plots come through with clarity and impressive vigour. The Comedy of Errors makes it clear that the story of an audience-friendly farce works well in the Globe, but is this theatre hospitable to a tragic play that, by its very nature, has a depth of feeling and subtlety in its storytelling that may be bruised by this rough environment? A July 7, 1999 afternoon performance of the "400th anniversary production" of Julius Caesar proves Shakespeare's storytelling prowess in what might seem to be less-than-friendly circumstances for a thoughtful drama.

  13. Master of Play Mark Rylance's tight, swiftly-paced production is unfussy in its staging and impressively lucid in its delivery of the text, thanks to the efforts of Master of Verse Giles Block. Although subtleties are easily missed in the Globe, Rylance's fifteen member, all-male, multi-ethnic cast manages to replace subtleties with a vigorous openness and bold clarity of acting.

  14. A timeless play of politics and power, Julius Caesar has resonance in almost any culture in which it is presented. Cynicism about politicians in the late twentieth century gives this production an extra level of dark irony that Shakespeare may or may not have imagined. Julius Caesar is a work that is consistent in tone, linear in its plotting, and its characters, with perhaps a couple of exceptions, are little more than two-dimensional. The play's linear structure allows for an uninterrupted building of tension, which Rylance and his cast manage to create despite their own imposition of five-minute intermissions at the end of each of the first four acts.

  15. Standing out among the strong cast are Danny Sapani, who plays Brutus with a mellowness and considerable sweetness that is compelling; Richard Bremmer, an especially "lean and hungry" Cassius whose vitality is chilling; Paul Shelley, an imposing actor who plays Caesar with the air of a corporate magnate; and Mark Lewis Jones, whose Mark Antony has a working class roughness that falls away as events cause him to rise as a leader of men. (Figure 2) When Jones delivers Antony's speech, he begins sotto voce from the tiringhouse gallery and ends reading Caesar's will seated on the assassinated leader's bier. When he lifts Caesar's wound-ridden body and thrusts it toward the groundlings, the impact is electrifying. Calpurnia and Portia are played by Benedict Wong and Toby Cockerell, respectively. Each are effective, but the convention of men playing female roles is difficult for a contemporary audience to accept in a serious play. In comedy, a man in drag is obviously intended to provide amusement; here, however, the spectators seem uncertain about accepting Wong and Cockerell as genuine contributors to the drama. A real Shakespearean laugh is found when Cockerell's Portia states that she has a man's tongue but a woman's might but otherwise there are occasional titters from the audience at inappropriate moments. The New Globe's 1999 season will conclude with artistic director Rylance playing Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra, and this should truly test an audience's willingness to accept this particular Elizabethan convention.

  16. The actors in Julius Caesar wear a mixture of Elizabethan dress with ancient Roman embellishments added, as was more or less the way it was done in Shakespeare's day. For example, togas are draped over the seventeenth century garb for the assassination scene. Garments and armour used in this production were made at great expense in the Elizabethan tradition by rare craftspeople who retain the methods of centuries ago. Master of Clothing and Props Jenny Tiramani makes the dubious choice of beginning the play with several of the male characters nearly naked, covered only with a few appropriately placed feathers, which, presumably, is intended to suggest the hedonistic life of Rome. Otherwise, Tiramani's mixture of Elizabethan costumes and Romanesque adornments effectively gives the play a foot in two eras in which the issue of tyrannicide would have resonance, something Shakespeare's own audience must have instinctively understood. Tiramani also provides modest props to establish the play's differing locations, as in Act One when two white statues are set into the tiring house gallery. Other scenes feature only a bench and six potted trees and a large statue of Caesar is brought on for the assassination scene; a few stools and banners make up the rest. Ghost scenes work well without any lighting effects and, despite the fact that audience members are seated there, live storm sounds and music emanate from the tiringhouse gallery. These roughly created illusions may disappoint contemporary audiences accustomed to a greater degree of visual and aural sophistication, but for this performance of Julius Caesar its audience seemed satisfied.

  17. Rylance's staging is intelligent and fully utilizes the Globe's structural features. He has scattered some actors among the audience standing in the pit and, dressed in contemporary clothing (baseball caps, tee-shirts, shorts, with beer cans in hand, etc.), they serve as a claque to encourage the audience in becoming the Roman crowd. Other such direct interactions with the audience include bringing white-bearded soothsayer Jimmy Gardner through the crowd of groundlings to deliver his "Ides of March" warning to Caesar from the pit, underscoring it as a warning from "the people" about excessive hubris. Rylance states in the program for Julius Caesar that "Shakespeare must have wanted you to look at each other sometimes while you listened," and this becomes especially evident during the speech-making segment of the play.

  18. Julius Caesar is uncommonly well-suited to this theatre, there is no mistaking that the play was written for a space like the Globe. In this production, the New Globe's intimacy with its audience combines with its epic size to support the play's text. The stoicism of the New Globe's spectators also becomes evident when attending a performance there, but it is well worth the resultant sore back from standing in the pit, or the sore bottom from sitting on the hard and backless benches, for a few hours of drawing a bit closer to Shakespeare. Julius Caesar is a surprisingly engrossing performance for a play that critics have often considered obvious and lacking in poetry as compared with Shakespeare's usual standard of lyricism and subtlety. The dark ironies of Julius Caesar are efficiently revealed in a production that feels somewhat makeshift and rough-edged, with the strong performances of the cast making up in commitment what the production lacks in splendour. The sharp political analysis and strong plotting of the play hold up well in this production, but unfortunately the battle scenes and an inordinate number of noble suicides in the last part of the play become tedious and anticlimactic. Perhaps Julius Caesar suffers from its life as a school text, as the play that, unfortunately and unfairly, usually turns off the average high school student to Shakespeare. The play bursts with contemporary relevance, and its soaring rhetoric and frantically driven action overcomes weaknesses of its somewhat uninspired plotting.

  19. Despite flaws in any particular production, it is obvious that the New Globe is far more than an academically dead venue. It has many marvels to inspire and teach artists, scholars, and its audience about the seemingly endless depths of theme, character, and language of the wondrous and often mysterious world of Shakespeare's plays and the vigorous stage of his age.

Work Cited


Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.

© 1999-, R.G. Siemens and Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).