Update 2019: The tour I went on in 2016 titled “From Shakespeare to the Globe: The Evolution of Theatre in London” is no longer running, but you can still go on the “Introduction to London: Tides of Time” tour which visits the The Globe theatre among many other locations along the Thames. Book online here.
Theatre in England grew in popularity in the 1350s, originating as a form of religious education heavily controlled by the church. Today, the theatre serves as a platform for almost unrestricted entertainment, staging performances of almost any theme or genre. It is with no doubt that William Shakespeare made a huge and significant impact in London’s theatre scene, both in history and in our modern present. We explored this rich heritage in a London Theater Tour with a performer from Context Travel.
Commonly regarded as England’s National Poet or the ‘Bard of Avon’, Shakespeare is undoubtedly one of the most famous writers of all time. His writing style is famous for its use of the iambic pentameter. ‘Penta’ means five, and meter refers to the syllable pattern in one line of poetry. To put it simply, the iambic pentameter consists of five sets of unstressed syllables followed by five stressed syllables. This gives Shakespeare’s verses a natural rhythm when read- making it easier for the actor to remember!
Shakespeare’s plays continue to be studied and performed in multiple languages today. My 3 hour tour with Context Travel observed the origins of theatre, and how Shakespeare had contributed to theatre in his lifetime. We also explored the effects of his influence that remain relevant and active in modern society.
With 2016 marking the 400th Anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, there is no better time to discover more about this literary legend!
The Evolution of Theatre in London
Conveniently located only a few minutes walk from the London Bridge station, we met our guide and fellow tour members in the courtyard of the George Inn. If you choose the 10am tour as we did, be sure to have a full breakfast to tide you over till lunch or bring snacks just in case. Be well prepared for a long walk with comfortable shoes and a bottle of water, as well as an umbrella in case of rain. Luckily, we were blessed with perfect weather that day so sunglasses were essential!
Simon Dormandy, our guide greeted us by name and began the tour with a friendly introduction of himself as a longtime active member of London’s theatre scene.
Our starting point, the George Inn, is currently owned by the National Trust and stands as the oldest pub and last coaching inn in London. The inn was relevant to the day’s theme with its architecture, the courtyard. Simon painted a picture of how stages were built to utilise a building’s acoustics, resulting in an actor’s voice ringing clear for the audience to enjoy. We could almost see the crowd gathered in a semi circle around the stage, witnessing the early days of theatre performances.
As popularity grew, officials feared the sudden influence of theatre and banned plays within the city’s walls. This only resulted in theatre groups being built just outside the walls, with ‘The Theatre’ being Britain’s first playhouse. The majority of these theatres were built in an open air courtyard known as public theatres, costing from a penny to sixpence depending on the view you got. Richer members of the public could also enjoy indoor theatres known as the Blackfriars, where admission fees would be higher.
As we walked through South Bank, Simon would stop at attractions seemingly unrelated to theatre like the Southwark Cathedral and the Golden Hind. His expertise would clearly show as he pulled their stories of history and demonstrated their relevance to the present, which we found fascinating.
Eventually, we reached the original location of one of the biggest names in theatre history: the Globe Theatre. The Globe Theatre was built in 1599 by a playing company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men that had Shakespeare as their principal writer. The Globe Theatre was actually built with timber from the earlier mentioned ‘The Theatre’ that was dismantled when the lease of their site expired. After its completion, the Globe Theatre could hold up to 3,000 people and enjoyed performing Shakespeare’s works for 14 years. Unfortunately in 1613, a cannon misfired during a show and eventually burned Globe Theatre to the ground. It was quickly rebuilt with a tiled roof and continued entertaining until Puritans shut it down in 1642 to make room for tenements.
In 1970, American actor and director Sam Wanamaker aspired to recreate The Globe Theatre and founded the Shakespeare’s Globe Trust and the International Shakespeare Globe Centre. He dedicated years of his life fundraising and planning its reconstruction with architect Theo Crosby, till Wanamaker’s death in 1993. Shakespeare’s Globe was completed three and a half years after his passing. Today, Shakespeare’s Globe stands as the theatre closest in design to the original Globe Theatre.
The theatre hosts a bevy of performances throughout the year, from traditional depictions of Shakespeare’s classics to modern remakes of his most popular pieces. It also has a candlelit indoor theatre called the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse located within the Globe’s grounds. If you won’t be in London anytime soon, don’t fret! The Globe also goes on tour. Do check their schedule for relevant dates and show information.
As per the tour, we continued onto the London Millennium Footbridge towards St. Paul’s Cathedral. Also known as the ‘wobbly bridge’, it was closed for almost two years for modifications to be made after pedestrians felt the bridge swaying from side to side.
We concluded the tour at the courtyard of Temple Church, a location that was thoughtfully close to the different destinations our tour participants were heading to.
The lively theatre scene was evident throughout our tour, with brightly coloured posters advertising the many shows to watch and workshops to attend. It was inspiring to see Shakespeare’s pieces being constantly explored to new relevance, with a passion shared within the artistic community. Simon provided a well balanced mix of knowledge, experience and opinion in his telling of London’s evolution of theatre. As a member of the Performing Arts community, he added insight other tour guides could only learn from second hand. Simon was a pleasure to listen to and highly recommended.
If you are in London this year, why not commemorate the 400th Anniversary of Shakespeare’s death with a great tour with Context Travel From Shakespeare to the Globe: The Evolution of Theatre in London.
Once in a Lifetime Journey was a guest of Context Travel. As always all opinions are our own and, in fact, I regularly recommend Context’s tours to all my friends and acquaintances.