Tuesday, 4 January 2011

London: the city of kites and crows

It is 10 a.m. on the eve of St Bartholomew’s Day, Tuesday 24th August 1604, as William Shakespeare leaves the house of Mountjoy, his Huguenot landlord, on Silver street, and sets off eastwards along Cheapside.

The day is warm and sunny, and the streets are full of the cries of traders and the rumble of carts bringing the day’s provisions from the surrounding countryside. 

Arriving at Bishopsgate, Shakespeare glances at the tiny church of St. Helen’s where he worshipped when he first came to the metropolis, then continues his journey towards the Bridge, the pride of all Londoners. It is a large and animated structure with shops and residences, and even a tiny chapel. Shakespeare pays his toll and quickens his step, for he has an important meeting to attend.

He looks to the left, to the Tower of London, the mighty edifice in which Sir Walter Raleigh languishes in his cell in the Bloody Tower, perhaps working on his Historie of the World, or reminiscing on the heady days of the School of Night not long past. Cries of the wherry boatmen, the river taxi-drivers, rise up from the river. Shakespeare stops briefly to buy a herring pie, then continues onward, through Bridge Gate and into Southwick.

Above the gate, impaled on grisly pikes, are the severed heads of traitors. Birds perch on the heads and try to tear the flesh off them. But the birds are useful, cleansing the city of its dead animal carcasses. The people even identify themselves with them….

- Where dwell’st thou?
- Under the canopy.
- Under the canopy?
- Ay.
- Where’s that?
- I’th’ city of kites and crows.          [Coriolanus 4.5]

Southwick is the entertainment hub of London, though technically not in London at all, but under the jurisdiction of the county of Surrey. It exists as a thorn in the side of the puritans who control London on the other side of the river. The entertainments on offer are three-fold: theatres, animal bating arenas, and brothels. And the most celebrated venue is Paris Garden, a brothel and a bear bating pit rolled into one.

Shakespeare continues past St Mary Overie where his brother Edmund was buried a year earlier to the sound of the great bell being tolled; then past Winchester House, the residence of the Bishop of Winchester. Prostitutes are frequently seen entering and leaving the house and have been awarded the charming sobriquet of ‘Winchester Geese’. They are also known as punks, and usually called Doll. [Doll Tearsheet, 2 Henry IV] But beware, for a Winchester Goose can also give you ‘goose bumps’, slang for the symptoms of venereal disease.

And then he is there, his theatre, his destination, a stone’s throw from the Clink prison in the Liberty of the Clink, the Wooden O, the Globe.

Many things have changed, of course, since Shakespeare walked the streets of London, though some things have also remained the same. The Tower is still there, as are St. Helen’s and St. Mary Overie, now Southwick Cathedral. The coney-catchers and cutpurses are there, too, only now called conmen and pickpockets. And also there is the Globe. Not the original structure, of course, that was destroyed by fire in 1613 during a performance of Henry VIII, but a magnificent reconstruction and the inspiration of Sam Wannamaker, an American actor, director, film producer, and lifelong Shakespearean.

The Globe was a large, open-air theatre with a yard in front of the stage and a two-tier terrace. It was constructed entirely from wood and during the reconstruction they remained as faithful as possible to the original. The same type of wood was used, the same carpentry methods and the same kind of tools were employed. It even has a straw roof, the first building in London to do so since the Great Fire of 1666, albeit with sprinklers to comply with fire regulations.

The plans of the original theatre were not, of course, available, but based on excavations of the old Globe, and of the nearby Rose Theatre, it was possible to obtain important information on the dimensions and the position of the stage.

But they had to compromise on audience capacity. The original theatre accommodated 3,000 spectators - 2,000 seated in the terraces, and 1,000 groundlings standing in the yard. But the new theatre only has half this amount, firstly to comply with health and safety regulations, and secondly for reasons of comfort, as people are physically larger today than they were 400 years ago.

Even before the building was finally completed it mounted its first production, on 21 August 1996, a performance of The Two Gentlemen of Verona.

Back in 1604 Shakespeare goes into the theatre and heads straight to the tiring room where a sharers’ meeting is planned. The company’s last production, Troilus and Cressida, had not pleased the masses, so this time Shakespeare, the original ’snapper-up of unconsidered trifles’ had turned to Giambattista Cinzio Giraldi for a tale from his Gli Ecatammite (The Hundred Tales) about a Moorish commander.  Shakespeare named his character Othello and is excited about the work.

In the tiring room the sharers are all present, among them Richard Burbage, John Heminges, Augustine Phillips, William Sly and Henry Condell. Dick Burbage wastes no time in asking the question.
“So what have you got for us, Will?”
“Well, lads, I think you’ll like it. It’s the story of a man who in a rage of sexual jealousy murders his wife”.
“He’d been cuckolded by the wench, eh Will? Yes, I do like it!”
“Oh no, she is the most pure, virtuous and innocent of women”.
“Then it must villainy of his part, eh? I‘ll dust off my Machiavellian costume.”
“You won’t need that, Dick. You see, he’s the noblest hero of them all”.
“A noble gentleman killing his virtuous wife? Are you sure you’ve got this one right, Will? ”
“And we’ll need to get some African costumes, too”.
“African costumes? Why the devil do we need African costumes?”
“Oh, didn’t I mention it? He’s also black”.

There is no recorded date for the first performance of Othello, but it was given before King James I on 1 November 1604 at Banqueting House at Whitehall and has now become one of the world’s most popular and enduring plays and Othello himself part of our mythology.

As for the new Globe, it is now one of London’s most visited tourist destinations. But you won’t see the kites and the crows unless you close your eyes. For the theatre, never forget, and especially the theatre of Shakespeare, is a place of the imagination. And with imagination you can see anything.

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