Day 2: Shakespeare’s Stages


Renowned actor Michael Pennington counts himself as “lucky enough” to have played Hamlet twice, as well as the role of King Lear – and many of you will probably have seen him in one Shakespeare or another at some point. I fondly remember his portrayal of Antigonus in the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company’s The Winter’s Tale from a few years ago, as his performance was one of the few high points of a rather unexciting production – he even ended up with an Olivier Award nomination for Best Actor in a Supporting Role.

As well as a glittering acting career, Pennington has also written 10 books, and came to the Museum of London tonight to deliver a lecture brought to the venue by Gresham College: Shakespeare’s Stages: In Little Place A Million. It was a completely free event, and they also streamed it so you should be able to catch up with the full lecture should my blog entice you!

The aim of the lecture was to talk about the stages which Shakespeare wrote for (and most probably performed on), also considering the context in which he was writing – such as the change in monarchy partway through his career, and the change in his personal circumstances once he began to taste success as a playwright. There was also time to celebrate the Bard’s work from the perspective of an actor and a fellow fan.

The Winter’s Tale
Photo credit: Johan Persson

It was interesting to begin on 3 March 1592, with a performance of ‘Hary the VJ’ (or Henry VI to you and me) at the new Rose Playhouse down in Southwark – this was the fourth major theatre to spring up in London, after the Newington Butts Theatre, the Curtain Theatre and The Theatre, and saved from property developers in the not-too-distant past. ‘Hary the VJ’, along with much of Shakespeare’s work, is notable for the fact that he was almost a pioneer of cinematography; not only could he write some of the most incredible battle scenes imaginable, but he would then be able to zoom in on the tiniest detail as if he were indeed filming the whole thing. With minimal props and no real set, simplicity apparently became Shakespeare’s “calling card”, and he was famed for his “word-pictures” that he painted on his stages.

For anyone who has been to the Globe, you’ll know that a full yard can be a little bit of a tight squeeze in places – but back in Shakespeare’s time (with no Health & Safety regulations to follow), you could easily see 2,000 people crammed into a yard that was just 12 metres across. And that would have included pedlars & prostitutes, all trying to sell their distinctive wares before, during & after performances…

It’s thought that in the ‘lost years’, young Will Shakespeare learned his trade as a touring actor, playing in tavern yards up & down the country, and generally annoying everyone around him as he fiddled with the scripts! Once he reached London, he went straight for Shoreditch, and soon his own plays made it to the stage. He had to wait for a bit, but after a handful of plays at the Rose he set his sights on the more prestigious venue of The Theatre – but by 12 June 1599 we see his Henry V playing at the Globe Theatre.

Incredibly, Shakespeare produced 13 plays in six years (I’m starting to wonder if this is what James Graham bases his workload on!), with the rest slightly more paced out. What I’d never realised before is that there are only two out of the 37-40 plays classed as Shakespeare’s that were completely of his own making, rather than drawn from old plays, legends or history: Love’s Labour’s Lost and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Both romantic comedies, but also with particular moral points to be made.

Pennington considers James I to have been a more intelligent theatregoer than his predecessor Elizabeth I – though whether you can really call him a theatregoer is debatable, as he would regularly call the renamed King’s Men to court for command performances. During his reign, they would be called upon around about every three weeks, as opposed to every three months prior to 1603. So in the latter part of Shakespeare’s career, buildings may have figured less in his approach to writing as they were so frequently performed at court – apart from the new indoor theatre at Blackfriars, which was a great financial boon (they could charge sixpence for a ticket, as opposed to the threepenny outdoor balcony seats and penny groundling experience). Though you’d often find “overdressed patrons” walking across the stage mid-performance!

There was just time for a bit of a Q&A at the end, where we considered various Shakespeare-related queries – but I was most fascinated to find out that, while we can’t know for sure, it’s very likely that Shakespeare himself acted the parts of Adam (the old manservant in As You Like It) and Hamlet. Both roles taken by the Globe’s current AD Michelle Terry this season…

This really was a very interesting hour; the image that springs to mind when you think of theatre in Elizabethan times is that of places like the Globe, and massive crowds of people streaming in and out – you don’t really consider the guildhalls, taverns and country houses that would also have hosted theatrical performances during that time. A lot of great Shakespearean insight on offer here.

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