To build a globe

London, 1598. 

Picture a theatre in Shoreditch, a tall polygonal building, a wooden O, with tiered galleries facing a stage, a wooden embrace able to house three-thousand bodies in rapt entertainment. It is London’s first theatre, owned by James Burbage, a businessman and impresario, father of Cuthbert and Richard, the latter a soon to be well-known actor. Creatively enough, theirs is named the Theatre, the first and only of its kind for sometime. Outside the city walls, anything is possible. Here, dreams are made and acted out by men playing at soldiers and braggarts, kings and queens, lovers, tyrants, gods and mortals; a kingdom for a stage, princes to act and monarchs to behold the swelling scene!

This winter, in 1598, the Burbage’s and their company of players, the Chamberlain’s Men, players to the Her Majesty, found themselves in the unpleasant place of having a landlord who wanted his land back, preferably without a theatre on it. Only trouble was, as players and theatre-folk, the theatre was their only means of survival. Sure, they could have toured, but every touring company needs a base, needs a home ground, a waterhole, a place of succour and refuge; their place. The Burbage’s called a council of war, a meeting of minds, where each of the shareholders in the Theatre met to voice their concerns. Present that night was a man who has since become legendary, a William Shakespeare of Stratford. As the night lengthened and their wits wandered, desperate to find a solution to their darkest hour, a candleflame flickered in that marvellous mind.


Upon the heath: Bell Shakespeare's Macbeth

The houselights go down and you’re plunged into blackness. Thick total inky suffocating blackness. The audience begins to shift uneasily in their seats, caught off guard, until at the rear of the stage, a thin shaft of light illuminates a disembodied face hanging, impossibly, upside-down from the ceiling. We soon realise it’s a mirror, or what passes for a mirror, and it speaks – all at once female and male, its timbre trebled and possessed – and the alltoofamiliar opening lines of the play echo confusingly around the theatre. As the lights rise on the stage, we see a gently raked space – the “blasted heath” – a scattering of gravel, dirt, and tussocky grass. Suspended above it is a black reflective panel, the counterweight to the heath, a mirror for all intents and purposes. And the play begins.

Bell Shakespeare’s first production for 2012 is Macbeth (or ‘The Scottish Play,’ if you’re a superstitious mug), directed by Peter Evans. It’s a play about politics and power, rumours and gossip, witchcraft and lineage, kings and courts, and was written around 1605 in response to the Gunpowder Plot. All that is merely historical context to this production which, true to Bell Shakespeare’s ethos and house-style, is in modern-dress, a fusion of 21st century jeans, boots and shirts, and 1940s elegance, in the lords’ bright cerulean blue jackets and Lady M’s dresses. Director Peter Evans (who directed Julius Caesar for Bell Shakespeare in 2011) wanted to focus more on the people and the power, the relationships and humanity of – in – the play, than on the politics, a decision which gave the play a weirdly languid dynamic and yet one of the most insanely gripping and astoundingly brilliant endings I’ve seen yet.