Lockdown may close the doors of London’s iconic Globe Theatre for good. Built by William Shakespeare, the Bard’s original Globe was consumed by fire in the 17th century. Could its successor fall victim to the economic fallout from the current health crisis? That’s the dramatic scenario being presented by the venue’s top team.
Despite its prestigious reputation, the Globe relies on public access. A reported 95% of revenue is generated not only through performances, but events such as weddings. This non-profit status has put it in a difficult situation with regards government help. Outside the protection of Arts Council England (ACE), it has also failed to secure money from an additional scheme.
While it’s taken advantage of the Job Retention Scheme, this has only gone so far to plug the gap. Even before the crisis, things were touch and go. Speaking to BBC Sounds, artistic director Michelle Terry described pre-pandemic business as “very hand to mouth”.
The Globe’s doors closed on March 20th, in line with lockdown rules. Approx $7 million is required to literally keep the show on the road. In the meantime, the institution has been active online. Productions have been uploaded to watch for free, together with supplementary material like pre-show talks and workshops.
In 1613 the Globe suffered a devastating onstage accident. Erected just 14 years earlier by The Lord Chamberlain’s Men (Shakespeare’s theatrical company), it used timbers belonging to actor and impresario James Burbage. He’d built London’s first ever permanent theatre, but took it down after his lease expired. The Bard then accepted the materials and put up the Globe in Southwark, on the River Thames’ famous South Bank.
Sadly for these pioneers of performance, staging a show could be a dangerous affair. ‘Henry VIII’ spelled disaster for Southwark. History Extra writes, “When a set of stage cannons were fired near the end of Act One to mark the entrance of King Henry for a masque scene at Cardinal Wolsey’s residence, barely anyone in the crowd noticed that a piece of flaming material from one of the cannons had landed on the theatre’s thatched roof.”
Conditions worked against the wooden structure. “The day was hot and dry, and within little more than an hour only smoking ruins were left. The fire raged so intensely that a house next door went up too.” Thankfully there were no fatalities.
In 1997 the Globe theatre was reborn, constructed along traditional lines. Smithsonian Magazine reports, “Actors perform without microphones or sets, and half of the theater’s 1,500 audience members stand in ‘the pit,’ where they can interact directly with those onstage.” For extra authenticity there’s no roof. Footage shows audiences getting rained on, in a classic example of British weather not playing fair.
Evidence was recently presented to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), whose select committee heard the case for emergency help. The Globe argued strongly that it “contributes so much to the UK’s cultural life” and “delivers public benefit”, adding that the organization “stewards one of the most important, recognized and well-loved buildings in the country”. Under these circumstances, the theatre believes “we have earned the right to be supported”.
The British government, quoted by BBC News, assert they are “providing unprecedented support for the cultural sector” and that they are “now working closely with the industry to plan for the future”. A push to boost public attendance will begin “as soon as it is safe to do so”.
For Globe CEO Neil Constable, the loss to the UK’s cultural landscape if the venue closes would be incalculable. “As we emerge from this time, the world will inevitably look very different” he writes on social media, “but expression of the human soul and experience through the arts is needed now as never before.”