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An eccentric part of the landscape

Robert Gore-Langton talks to an irreverent Dominic Dromgoole about the Globe

21 May 2008

12:00 AM

21 May 2008

12:00 AM

Robert Gore-Langton talks to an irreverent Dominic Dromgoole about the Globe

A few months ago I was at a literary festival on a drama panel which featured a senior actress of the stage. She was holding forth about working with the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford when I suggested that Shakespeare’s Globe was just as hugely popular but nobody took it half as seriously. ‘Ah, well, you see there’s a feeling in the industry that it’s all a bit twee — you know, a bit heritage Shakespeare,’ she said.

‘Patronising cow,’ I thought at the time, while laughing along sycophantically. But she probably spoke for most of her generation to whom Stratford is the sacred temple of Shakespearean excellence. A dubious claim these days. But the Globe has over the past ten years undeniably worked its way into the public affection. It was a mad dream which is now a hugely successful reality and an eccentric part of the theatre landscape.

The theatre (if you haven’t yet been, it looks like a wonky thatched Polo mint parked next to Tate Modern) is run by the director Dominic Dromgoole, a likable but combative 44-year-old with a background in new plays. His latest season has just opened with his own no-hanging-about production of King Lear — with David Calder a terrific Lear — to great reviews.

The rest of the year includes A Midsummer Night’s Dream (with Siobhan Redmond and Tom Mannion), Timon of Athens (a misanthropic satire regarded as box-office suicide) and The Merry Wives of Windsor (with Christopher Benjamin as Falstaff). On top of that there are two new plays: a promisingly disgusting piece, The Frontline by Ché Walker, about modern London on a Saturday night; and Glyn Maxwell’s French historical drama Liberty.

But what about this actor snobbery against the place — how real is it? ‘Thick as cheese,’ says Dromgoole, his arms behind his head in his hi-tech backstage eyrie. ‘It’s a huge factor. Things are fine now but ten years ago the RSC were very insecure about this place and they weighed in heaviest with the Disneyland theme-park accusations and a lot of actors still live within that prejudice. The idea that it’s “heritage theatre” is bollocks. If anything it’s been a shot of adrenalin to the theatre generally and most specifically to Shakespeare-playing. The method that the Globe has revived — plain light, direct address to the audience, getting away from heavy design and directorial concepts — everyone is now doing it. It’s taken theatre back to being all about the actors, the writer and the audience. People find that very refreshing.’

Business is certainly booming. Income is up 12 per cent from last year. Advance sales are over two million, which is vital as the Globe doesn’t get a penny in government subsidy. Nor is the place reliant on corporate sponsors. It’s a straightforward trading theatre. Seven hundred tickets for every performance go for a fiver. If you don’t want to be a standing groundling, a seat will cost you £15 upwards with a pound extra for an optional cushion.

‘The programme here is massively ambitious,’ he says. ‘Five companies in all; we are doing two tours; we have 140 actors and musicians working for us which is on a par with the RSC and the National in terms of scale. We spend huge amounts of money on our education work, which we take very seriously.’

Of course the building itself is the real star. Gorgeous it is, too. I vividly remember the place being hand-built, watching two expert Rastafarian plasterers trowelling lime and goat-hair putty on to the walls. The place is still being worked on. Dromgoole took me up to the gallery above the stage and showed me the new murals in the boxes depicting scenes from Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’. The original Globe was, apparently, a riot of Catholic colour in a world of Puritan whitewash.

‘It is probably the most successful theatre architecture there has ever been,’ he says. ‘The biggest historical problem is why no one attempted to recreate it fully for 330 years.’ Whatever the reason, Globe-mania is now everywhere. Oak forests are being decimated for Globes in Dallas, Massachusetts, Iceland, Rome and Australia, plus a collapsible touring Globe designed by the carpenter who built the London version.

Dromgoole thinks the critics have given the place a rough ride and is known for firing off furious emails of complaint. Pointless, of course. But there’s no doubt he is the right chap to be running the place. He’s full of passion for Shakespeare as a contemporary voice, and his anarchic and funny book Will and Me: How Shakespeare Took Over My Life pays Shakespeare the compliment of treating him as a very human writer full of flaws. I particularly love the idea that every play contains patches of lousy writing where Shakespeare had clearly started work that morning with a hangover. It’s this similarly irreverent, tradition-free approach to performance that has kept the theatre from becoming a mock-Tudor outpost of Madame Tussauds, however Elizabethan the costumes.

As for the accusation that it’s packed full of tourists, Dromgoole says when they did a survey it was about 20 per cent of the gate. ‘Anyway, who cares? They didn’t build the first Globe to keep the tourists out. In fact the only information we have about the original theatre is a sketch and a diary entry by a Swiss and a German — both tourists in Shakespeare’s cosmopolitan London.’

It would be wonderful one year to have a season of plays not by Shakespeare at the Globe. Dromgoole agrees but points out that they would lose about £3 million and around 30 jobs if they did. When the smaller indoor theatre next to the Globe — currently a shell — raises the required £3 million, there’ll be a place for the other great dramatists of the period. Top of his wish list are Marston’s The Malcontent and Dekker and Middleton’s The Roaring Girl.

Dromgoole’s contract runs to 2011, although he hopes to be able to stay for the Olympics. But he’s doing the job for the best of reasons. It’s fun. Just as thunder rumbles ominously for the matinée of King Lear, he sniffs the wind for rain and says, ‘There’s very little as pleasurable as playing Shakespeare in a beautiful theatre to appreciative audiences beside a river during the summer. There’s not a lot wrong with that.’

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