By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 15, 2007
The Globe Theatre, the site of so many of Shakespeare's theatrical triumphs, is a fetish object.
It is the Valhalla of Bardolotry, a place every decently educated schoolkid can picture in detail even if, as scholars readily admit, much of what it looked like is simply unknown. As a piece of architecture, it has been dust and compost for more than four centuries, but the Globe keeps recurring, being rebuilt and re-imagined, as if only there (or in some facsimile) can Shakespeare really come alive.
At first glance, the National Building Museum might seem an odd choice to be brought into the big tent of the Kennedy Center's Shakespeare in Washington festival. But, of course, there's always the Globe, and so the museum is doing its part, with an exhibition devoted to the old Elizabethan polygon, open to the air, on the south bank of the Thames.
The surprise is that "Reinventing the Globe: A Shakespearean Theater for the 21st Century," which opened Saturday, is smart, fresh and idiosyncratic. Perhaps because architecture is an art with real money at stake, or perhaps because architects are by nature intellectually lively people, the highlight of the Kennedy Center's rather diffuse Shakespeare festival may turn out to be this small but lively survey devoted to the larger idea of "Globe-ness."
The show is divided into two parts. The first is a historical look at Elizabethan theaters, and at the persistent fascination with re-creating the Globe over the ages. The second half shows the work of five different architects or architectural teams who were given the challenge of rethinking the Globe for a new era. Their contributions amount to a fascinating overview of the strengths and pathologies of contemporary architecture, including the strange obsession for getting people "engaged" with friendly or open buildings (as if cold and serene buildings, like the Taj Mahal, or dour, overbearing ones, like the Pantheon, weren't "engaging" enough). So the exhibition moves from the old Globe, seen in drawings and paintings and described in old documents, to the globe itself, suggested by one theatrical plan that would use Internet technology to link multiple performances of "Macbeth," around the world, together into a seamless, virtual show.
The basics are covered in schoolbook fashion: The Globe was an outdoor theater with a thrust stage, an open court for the "groundlings" and covered galleries for those willing to pay a little extra. It was not quite circular, but rather a polygon with perhaps 16, 18 or 20 sides. It was located on the margins of London, amid other various and disreputable forms of entertainment.
Rather like William Shakespeare himself, whom we know through tantalizingly minimal documentary evidence such as the infamous will and testament that bequeaths "my second best bed" to his wife, Anne, we often know the Globe only secondhand. A construction contract for another theater, the Fortune, makes reference to the Globe and gives us some description. Wenceslaus Hollar's famous engraving of London, which appears so often on the cover of collected editions of Shakespeare's works, shows us the Globe and its location -- except that the artist has confused the theater with a bear-baiting arena.
Given the sketchiness of what is known, much of the historical part of the exhibition is devoted to efforts at reconstruction, including a lavishly detailed model finished in 1950 by John Cranford Adams that, alas, represents the theater as an octagon, which it almost assuredly was not. The allure of the Globe -- in many ways a perverse desire given all the inconveniences of performing in the open air, in daylight and only during the clement months -- is such that conjecture on paper has often given way to full-scale conjecture with beams and mortar.
And this is where it gets interesting. The passion for rebuilding the Globe emerges as a rather obnoxious default thinking for cultural leaders who have run out of ideas. When in doubt, build a Globe. So we see the sad and absurd plans for a huge Globe theater reconstruction in Detroit, a 1979 project that was never built, but surely meant as some kind of second chance for a city that was descending into full-scale urban collapse. Racism, poverty and the grand lack of strategic thinking by the local auto barons in the face of a gas crisis and Japanese competition was turning Detroit into a dead zone. Maybe Shakespeare's Globe could pull the city out of it death spiral.
Or maybe not. A churl might point out that the revivified National Endowment for the Arts is a success story in part because it has reverted to safe projects, such as touring Shakespeare, and that the entire concept of a six-month Shakespeare festival -- in a town already awash in Shakespeare -- is yet another reflexive response to artistic programming. Detroit isn't the only place where Shakespeare is the easy answer.
Another oddity is the obsession with the Globe during the great technology and international exhibitions of the 1930s. Curator Martin Moeller makes the argument that despite the central focus of many of these exhibitions on futuristic ideas and the great new utopias being engineered in the laboratories of the world -- utopias that were already showing a dystopian side in Germany and the Soviet Union -- there was a repeated return to reconstructions of the Globe. Perhaps, says Moeller, the Globe represented a "wholesome" entertainment among the fleshpot novelties of the midway, a balancing mechanism for a world that was moving too fast.
But lest it seem that the Globe is inherently a conservative or even reactionary fantasy, it seems that it is primarily so mostly for the English-speaking world. Outside the orbit of Shakespeare's native tongue, the Globe is treated more playfully, as seen in the "ice Globe," carved out of ice and used for winter performances in Sweden, or the Haller Globe, a quickly built provisional-looking theater that has a genuine architectural edginess to it, built on an island in Germany in 2000.
The architects chosen to muse on the subject of Globe-ness in the exhibit are also refreshingly free of any reverential or authenticity-soaked approach to Shakespeare. If anything, they go too far in the opposite direction, reconceptualizing the theatrical experience to the point that one wonders if Shakespeare could survive the transmutation. John Coyne, a scenery and costume designer with an architecture degree, offers "A New Global Theater," using the obvious pun on the theater's name to imagine a performance that, through the miracle of the Internet, live streaming and big monitors, could fuse together actors on different continents into a single, virtual performance.
This fantasy is a familiar one, from big spectacles that use live video feeds, and from the spirit of older artistic fantasies of uniting people through art. Alexander Scriabin, a Russian composer who lived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, imagined a grand multimedia synthesis that would be a mystical bridge to the great, universal kumbaya. He was, unfortunately, insane.
And it's hard to imagine the real, theatrical impact of Coyne's dream. If Lady Macbeth is in Singapore and her poor henpecked husband is in Paraguay, how much of their subtle psychological warfare would communicate to an audience in Honolulu? It could be great. It could also be like watching "Hamlet" on your cellphone. In any case, it seems almost counter-theatrical to break the intimacy of real people in a real place acting for a live audience, with no technological screens to divide them from the experience. After years of fretting about the so-called "fourth wall" that supposedly divides audiences from the stage, we're coming full circle, erecting a virtual fourth wall to enforce that divide.
An architectural firm called H3 Hardy Collaboration Architecture, which has deep experience in theater design, including the renovation of Radio City Music Hall, proposes bringing theaters directly to the people. Following in the spirit of Joe Papp, the producer who gave New Yorkers a much-loved Shakespeare series in Central Park, H3 proposes a theater plunked down right in the middle of Times Square, and another one that would float around to the various boroughs of New York. Cool. But isn't the endpoint of this fantasy television -- entertainment that comes to you? The goal of taking theater to people has the downside that people don't have to make any particular effort to go to the theater.
If Coyne fantasizes about a world in which people on different continents are linked, H3 proposes a world in which people from different boroughs don't have to cross a bridge to gather together for a collective experience.
The young Iranian-born architect Michele Saee proposes what is the most lovely looking architectural object, but it's hard to make sense of it. Saee proposes using electronic monitors to track the movements of a performance of "Romeo and Juliet," and would then plug his squiggly little maps into a computer, manipulate them and generate fantastical shapes that somehow would add up to be a theater. They look a little bit like Zaha Hadid's fabulously unbuildable buildings, but it's hard to see them as functioning theaters. And there's an odd, perhaps unintended meaning built into them: They are the maps of something that has already happened. If theater is only alive in performance, Saee's buildings are the embodiment of a dead object, a memory of a performance that is in the past. It's also hard to imagine where he'd put the bathrooms.
The best of the designs, because it is modest, practical and closely connected to a genuine populist tradition, is Jennifer Siegal's plan for a "GlobeTrotter," an expandable theater carefully packed like an accordion with attachable balloons into a tractor-trailer. Dressing rooms are contained in inflatable pods, walls fold out to make the stage acoustically lively, lighting and scenery and seats for the audience are all carefully attended to and just as carefully designed for compact packing.
Yes, this is also about bringing Shakespeare to the people, but it's not quite the same as a floating theater in New York. Siegal's Office of Mobile Design has created a practical, doable theater that echoes, in its conception, the long history of taking Shakespeare on the road, to small towns in Nebraska and Wyoming. And, of course, it wouldn't have to bring just Shakespeare. You could pack Jean Genet and "The Vagina Monologues" into the Glob eTrotter just as easily. The best legacy of the National Building Museum's engaging show would be for someone to cough up funds for a couple of GlobeTrotters.
Reinventing the Globe: A Shakespearean Theater for the 21st Century runs until Aug. 27 at the National Building Museum, 401 F St. NW. The museum is open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free. Call202-272-2448. http://www.nbm.org