Monday, 7 January 2013

Stealing a theatre

Over Christmas I read 1599 by James Shapiro, a forensic study of one pivotal year in the life of William Shakespeare. I felt I was starting to read it in real time, as the book opens in London at Christmas time – on 28th December 1598, to be exact. It was a cold, snow-swept day. A group of armed men – carrying swords, daggers and hatchets – were walking with stealthy purpose through the muffled London streets. They were a troupe of actors, the Chamberlain’s Men, and the authentic weapons were the props from their bloodthirsty revenge tragedies, but they were being carried with serious intent. Amongst their number was almost certainly Shakespeare himself.

The Chamberlain’s Men were in deep trouble. They owned a wooden theatre – known, rather prosaically as the Theatre in Shoreditch, which they had been banned by the authorities from occupying. The ground on which it stood was leased from a landlord, Giles Allen, with whom they had fallen out. Without a theatre to play in their future was bleak – and there was a certainty that Allen would now claim the building's valuable timber for himself – but he was temporarily out of London for Christmas. Spotting a window of opportunity the actors decided to grab the theatre back, dismantle it and carry it away, whilst Allen was off the scene. They were armed to repulse any attempt to stop them. For Shakespeare, one of the shareholders in the company, this was a critical moment. The dawn raid had been undertaken in strict secrecy.

In a thick snow storm, and under the instruction of Peter Street, a master carpenter, they repelled all attempts to prevent them. By night fall, the enormous timbers of the frame, each a foot square and weighing half a ton, had been loaded onto wagons and wheeled away to a warehouse on the Thames. Allen returned to find an empty lot – and failed to regain the structure in a subsequent court battle.

The following spring, the Theatre was re-erected on the South Bank at Southwark, outside the jurisdiction of the City of London, and re-christened the Globe. And Shakespeare was writing furiously – new plays, new ways of seeing the world. 1599 saw Henry the Fifth, Julius Caesar, As You Like It and Hamlet all brought to the light of day there, in a tumultuous year for England, London and the future of theatre.

"Or may we cram within this wooden O the very casques that did affright the air at Agincourt?"
Henry the Fifth

1 comment:

  1. Another most interesting post -- we may have to add that book to our future's list!