Feeling Shakespeare at the Pop-up Globe

By Adam Hembree, The University of Melbourne

Image: A jig by any other name: Much Ado About Nothing cast members perform a dance that mixes Jacobean and Maori dances. Photo: Eddie Jim. Courtesy of the Sydney Morning Herald.
Image: ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ cast members perform a dance that mixes Jacobean and Maori dances. Photo: Eddie Jim. Courtesy of the Sydney Morning Herald.

Opening later this month, the Pop-up Globe Theatre promises to deliver ‘Shakespeare like it’s 1614’ to Melbourne audiences. ‘This isn’t dusty Shakespeare’, claims the theatre’s home page, ‘This is now. Alive. Like a party’.

Some recent editorial pieces have reported that the Pop-up’s mission is to perform Shakespeare ‘as it was intended’. This would not only be an absurd and fruitless mission, it also isn’t what the Pop-up offers us.

Shakespeare’s ‘original intent’ means little. We have records of Shakespeare’s baptism, his will and limited evidence of his life and work. We have the texts: hodgepodges of material gathered and arranged by centuries of different actors, editors and academics. We also have evidence that Shakespeare teamed up with other writers on some of ‘his’ plays, as was common at that time. But his ‘intent’? That’s a ghost haunting the castle ramparts of a rotten way of reading.

We make so much of ‘intention’, but what about ‘attention’? They have the same Latin root, tenere, meaning ‘to hold’. ‘Intention’ is what you hold as true. ‘Attention’ is what holds you. That’s what moving theatre does. It grips us. The word ‘entertainment’ also shares this etymology.

What the Pop-up Globe offers us is much closer to Shakespeare as originally attended, a show ‘performed in the space for which it was written’, as the theatre’s website says. The Pop-up is, above all, an exercise in space, a careful reconstruction of the most famous theatre in English history.

Space matters in the Globe because sound is instrumental to its construction. Scholars have used advanced acoustical analysis to estimate how sound travelled in Shakespeare’s theatre compared to differently shaped ones. While Elizabethan patrons would have paid more for a seat, Bruce R. Smith has argued that the strongest acoustics for the similarly-shaped 1599 Globe would be found near the centre of the ‘pit’, amongst the groundlings.

Image: Actors perform ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ at the Pop-Up Globe in Auckland. Courtesy of Herald Sun.
Image: Actors perform ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ at the Pop-Up Globe in Auckland. Courtesy of Herald Sun.

Some spatial differences will affect the Melbourne Pop-up’s acoustics, though. Scholars estimate that the 1614 Globe had 18 or 20 sides made of timber and plaster, partly covered with a tiled roof. The Pop-up has 16 sides of metal scaffolding, panelled with corrugated iron. It also seats 900 people, as opposed to the 1614 Globe’s 3,000, because of safety regulations. With fewer human bodies to absorb sound and highly reflective building materials, the Pop-up’s sound might be bright rather than deep or resonant. That said, I’m hopeful that its many sides (as opposed to one big circle) will still reflect a broad, full sound like that believed to have been present in the Globe.

As an academic, I research the physics of feeling during Shakespeare’s time. For Londoners of 1614, ‘gripping’ entertainment wasn’t just a metaphor. Emotions (usually called ‘passions’) were conceived of like storms washing over and through human bodies. Doctors noted their real effects on health. Preachers feared that human passions were also a back door into a person’s free will, with nothing less than their moral soul at stake.

Taking what we know about The Globe into account, it is easy to see why Puritans were worried. The theatre put visual attention on its apron stage, with all eyes angled to that central plane. It also corralled sound into the centre of its pit, where 700 people could pay a penny to attend. These two centres of attention made for a strong sensory experience and, according to some accounts, resulted in some rowdy audience participation. One infamous story reports audience members joining in with staged combat, for example.

This ‘groundling affect’ is part of the Pop-up’s actual promise. ‘Groundlings is the best, most interactive and authentic way to watch the show’, the website asserts. If that’s true, then it is because groundlings earn a world of sights, sounds and perhaps even smells for their stamina. The space doesn’t just test their leg strength, it tests their emotional apparatus. For twenty-first-century Melbourne audiences, the Pop-up will be a strikingly different physical experience of live theatre, even if the plays are among the most canonical in English drama.

I have little time for ‘authorial intent’ and less still for its kissing cousin, ‘authenticity’. The Shakespeare industry manufactures piles of commercial nostalgia and specious cultural authority, most of which is dull and some of which is downright regressive. I will be attending the Pop-up shows, though, and not just because I’m a word nerd who loves the plays. I’m going because I want to get lost in the space and feel theatre differently. I’m also going for the party. Perhaps I’ll see you in the pit.

Adam Hembree is a PhD candidate in English at The University of Melbourne and a researcher with the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions. His research interests focus on early modern English drama, particularly the art and practice of playing, and his thesis, ‘Reading Strange Matters: The Magic Word in Early Modern Drama’, examines the discursive parallels between stage action and magical or occult arts. He also produces and performs in Completely Improvised Shakespeare.

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