Several years ago I saw a marvellous production of Twelfth Night at The Globe Theatre; I’ll never forget Mark Rylance’s performance in that play. On that occasion I probably had a seat in the middle tier (or gallery), I’ve forgotten exactly as it was over 15 years ago; we had good views but I do remember that the seats were uncomfortable so maybe I should have hired a cushion.
Browsing the internet early this year I was reminded of that experience and suggested to my adult son that he might like to come with me to see As You Like It – just to see for himself what The Globe Theatre is like inside as we’d walked past it together on many occasions. I know it’s possible to book conducted tours of Shakespeare’s Globe; the site also houses the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, the only candlelit theatre in London, and an exhibition space. However, my idea was to see inside the reconstruction of the original Globe at the cheapest possible price as a ‘groundling’, the name given to those who stand in the yard throughout the play; I’m not sure how many standing tickets are available post-pandemic but it used to be around 700.
The day of the performance was sunny and warm. We went by train to London and to get full value from the cost of our train tickets spent the day sightseeing before the evening performance, travelling around by bus and Thames Clipper. We were tired by the time we arrived at Shakespeare’s Globe around 6.30 pm and a queue was already forming outside the gate where the `groundlings` enter the site. However, we went inside the theatre to try to get a drink and snack but neither the cafe nor the bar were open an hour before the performance so we reluctantly went in a coffee shop opposite then returned to the theatre’s cafe to buy water (in cans) and some crisps for the journey back home on the train.
We joined the back of the queue and eventually the gate was opened and we entered, having our bags and e-tickets checked, then queued a bit more before finally entering the actual reconstructed theatre area. Built from oak beams and lime plaster the theatre building is an icosagon (20 sided polygon) and is open to the elements although the tiers of seats have a thatched roof over them. I had been advised by someone I know who volunteers there that the most comfortable place to stand is leaning up against the back wall in front of the seats so I found myself a position opposite steps leading onto the stage; my son wanted to be nearer the action, directly in front of the stage. My friend also said it’s easy for groundlings to walk out to the bar or toilet and back in again as nobody has an actual space reserved for them, however, once anyone moves from their favoured spot it will probably be taken by somebody else. We never intended to stay for the whole performance as we both suffer from worn out knees and we wanted to get back home to Kent well before midnight so I told my son to find me at the back when he’d had enough and we’d be able to slip out without causing too much disturbance. All the seats gradually filled up and before long three actors appeared on stage for the prologue, engaging with the those standing close to the stage and handing out sprigs of lavender to them. A placard was paraded round the yard informing us that we were not allowed to take any further photos or take recordings. Groundlings are not allowed to sit down on the ground, on steps or on folding chairs in the yard and anyone who does is made to stand up again. If it rains no umbrellas are allowed, for obvious reasons, so waterproofs are a good idea if rain is forecast; those standing are not allowed to take shelter in any seats that might be empty.
Actors made their entrances and exits via the steps next to where I was standing so I was close to the action and my view of the stage was excellent considering I am only 5`2”. I hadn’t realised that this production of As You Like It was LGBTQ+ or ’21st century “queering” as I’ve seen it described with the majority of roles being played by women unlike in Shakespeare’s time when men and boys would have playing women. I thought it all got a bit complicated when they started adopting the guises of the opposite sex. I also found the music and dances rather too modern for my taste; even my son had reservations about aspects of this modern take on the play. There was some excellent acting but also some actors whose accents were too strong for me to hear all they were saying. From reviews I’ve read since it seems that we saw the best part as the second half dragged on a bit. However, I’m not really reviewing the production but commenting on what it’s like being a groundling. They are subject to banter and more from the actors on stage which was cleverly done and quite fun. We were lucky with the weather as it was a perfect warm and dry evening. We weren’t the first to leave but after an hour and 15 minutes we decided to make our own exits. The staff and volunteers we met on the way out seemed concerned that we might not have enjoyed it as we were leaving early but we explained that we just needed to catch a train back to East Kent which meant getting to Victoria Station as some of the closer London stations were out of action. We headed over Southwark Bridge, enjoying the views of the Thames on the way, and soon found Mansion House underground station and got back to Victoria by the skin of our teeth and caught a train that got me back home before midnight. If we went again I would try to get tickets for a matinee performance and stay for the whole play, or not. Well worth a £5 ticket, however early one bows out.