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One Man's Will

Actor Sam Wanamaker's dream of re-creating the Bard's Globe Theatre comes true four years after his death.

June 14, 1997|WILLIAM D. MONTALBANO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LONDON — Sam, they played it again, and everybody's cheering.

It was Zoe Wanamaker, gray robe trailing across the straw-covered wooden stage, voice ringing around the thatch-roofed "wooden O," who brought a dream to life and a glittering new constellation to the firmament of London theaters. Officially opening a hard-won reproduction of William Shakespeare's Globe Theatre on the banks of the Thames, Wanamaker summoned a fiery muse to salute the Bard and the memory of her father.

Sam Wanamaker, the American actor-director, devoted a quarter-century of passion--and folly, many said--to build a replica, open-air Globe near its 17th century site in hopes of re-creating the setting and ambience in which Shakespeare was originally performed.

Wanamaker never lived to see it. He died at 74 in 1993, just as his dream was taking shape. Yet he was here, there, everywhere, when Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip joined a gala black-tie audience to behold the swelling scene as Shakespeare's Globe formally opened Thursday night after preview performances that impressed most critics with both the theater and its resident players.

"For me, it was strange, emotional, basically fearful, not just performing for the queen, but because of what it meant," Zoe Wanamaker said.

"Dad wanted 'Henry V' to be done because that particular opening speech encompasses everything he felt about the power of imagination," she said referring to the work whose prologue opens with "Oh for a muse of fire that would ascend / The brightest heaven of invention. /A kingdom for a stage, princes to act, / And monarchs to behold the swelling scene."

She added: "Dad believed in the abstract noun--art, beauty, romance. He'd hate me for saying it, but he also believed in sacrifice. For 25 years of his life, I think he sacrificed himself for what became an almost Arthurian quest to build this theater."

But too bad about the tide, Sam.

*

From the time his spiritual heirs realized that the Globe would actually be built, the solemn decision was to open with "Henry V" on a June 14--the anniversary of Wanamaker's birth in 1919. This year, the queen said, "Yes," she would come sailing down from Westminster in her royal barge for the opening. Alas, the barge's captain said, "Sorry, not enough water at show time on the 14th."

So it was that the Globe officially opened Thursday with an obliging tide and a for-the-royals, potpourri performance called "Triumphes and Mirth."

Yes, this afternoon, Globe artistic director Mark Rylance will star as battle-winning patriot King Hal in a Founder's Day opening of "Henry V."

For its first summer of repertory, "Henry V" and Shakespeare's "The Winter's Tale" will be followed, beginning Aug. 3, by two other Elizabethan works: the comedy "A Chaste Maid in Cheapside" by Thomas Middleton; and "The Maid's Tragedy" by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher.

There are glitches with sight lines and acoustics in the new theater and passing helicopters and descending jets are a nuisance. But the Globe, at once stark and ornate, is proving winsome to most visitors.

"It is the most exciting theater in London; mysterious yet familiar, epic yet capable of extraordinary intimacy," said reviewer Charles Spencer of the Daily Telegraph.

The Globe is theater as it was intended to be, observed "Henry V" director Richard Olivier, who said: "It is the nearest a theater can ever get to a sports event, a rock concert, a bullfight."

Under Rylance, performances began at the Globe last year while construction was still incomplete on the circular, three-level wood and plaster theater. There are 900 uncompromising wooden bench seats and space for 500 standees--called "groundlings" before a tall stage whose elaborately painted roof is supported by two giant Corinthian columns.

With the queen in the audience, even the groundlings wore black tie and evening gowns for the official debut of the $40-million theater. The Globe where Shakespeare wrote, acted and invested stood about 200 yards from the present site from 1614 to 1644.

Rylance, like Wanamaker before him, is eager to persuade critics that the Globe will never stray from artistic commitment. Noting that the Globe was where Cherie Blair, wife of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, took a visiting Hillary Rodham Clinton for a quick visit during preview performances, critic Peter Bradshaw of the Evening Standard, for one, is unconvinced.

Fearing that it will become a low-brow, once-over, buy a T-shirt, "Shakespearean experience" for tourists, Bradshaw predicts that the Globe over time will offer only "a jolly blur of doublet and hose, caps and bells and vague Elizabethan shouting."

After seeing preview performances, though, Benedict Nightingale, critic for the (London) Times, was reassured. "The thatched and timbered cylinder opposite St. Paul's is not going to be a theme park of trippers or a playpen for academics," Nightingale said. "The Globe has every chance of making a vital contribution to London's culture."

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