I'm just back from what became a Jacobean two days in London.. This was my first visit to the reconstructed Globe Theatre, despite the fact that it has now been open some twenty years. Where did that time go? To enjoy it as it was intended, without artificial light, an afternoon performance seemed most apt and so I struck upon King Lear, to be harrowed up again, as I knew I would be. It is indeed a man, or woman, of stone who can bear Lear's entrance bearing the dead Cordelia without some stab of anguish. It's anguish for her death and his plight, but for ourselves too, in a recognition of our own blindnesses and unintended cruelties. Such moments, I guess, are why tragedy is cathartic.
Live theatre is the strangest medium, in that you are aware throughout of its artifice, and yet it produces in you emotions that while the play lasts and sometimes beyond, feel all too real. And the artifice in the Globe is all the more apparent, where you sit on a hard bench gazing in broad daylight across the heads of other spectators, who scratch themselves and nudge their neighbours and drink Pimms, and while helicopters throb overhead and a distant motorcycle whines.
The Globe now has a new Artistic Director, Michelle Terry, who is pledged to maintain as far as possible the conventions of Jacobean theatre in the face of what were seen as sacrilegious changes made by her short-lived predecessor. And by coincidence, Ms Terry's inaugural press-confrence took place on the stage before our gallery just as the group I joined was being given its guided tour. So I was present as she gave a number of hostages to fortune, some of which might feel contradictory. If a return to authenticity of performance is required, it may feel strange to simultaneously pledge racial and sexual diversity. Like the sprinklers on the thatched roof (the first thatch in London, we're told, since the Great Fire), or even good loos, society could not tolerate too exact a return to the seventeenth century. We are not surprised to see real women in the parts originally played by boys. We may not be in too long surprised to see, as in this Lear, a black Gloucester with two very white sons, an Asian Cordelia, a female Duke of Kent. But then this was a modern dress production, set in a kingdom of streets and back-alleys. There may be productions where our suspension of disbelief is stretched beyond breaking point; meanwhile it is a wonder of the theatre that our suspension can be so elastic.
The Globe has attached to it an exhibition relating the history of this theatre in its various incarnations, and detailing the work and techniques that have gone into achieving the authenticity at which it aims. I lost myself in it for nearly two hours, which helps to explain the weariness of my feet when I finally arrived at the Banqueting House, a traipse and tube journey away.
The Banqueting House we see today was a wonder of its age, for all that it now merges comfortably among all the other Portland stone offices of state that have grown up around it: they try hard to match their function to its grace. Inigo Jones designed it as the first neo-classical building in England, (It's worth a mention that the master-mason responsible for its detailing was a Devon man , the aptly-named Nicholas Stone). The Baroque age arrived in Britain with its completion in 1622. It is not therefore the building that Shakespeare would have known, and a greater contrast with the oak and plaster of the Globe would be difficult to imagine. Nevertheless, it replaced and stands on the site of two earlier buildings that were used by Elizabeth I and James I for similar functions: ostentatious displays of wealth and power and taste through masques and receptions. Thus in 1606, Ben Jonson with Inigo Jones produced on this site a magnificent masque, the seventeenth century art form merging drama, dance, music and spectacle. Setting the bar for what followed. the production was an apotheosis of the new King and a celebration of the unity in him of the two Kingdoms of Scotland and England, and hence its title, Hymenaei, meaning the rites of marriage. The actors in these affairs were drawn from the aristocracy - the fondness for AmDram came early to England - but supplemented by professional musicians and actors, who were almost certainly drawn from Shakespeare's company, The King's Men. As if the King's Men were not busy enough: for the masque was virtually simultaneous with the debut of King Lear. And in their different ways they share concerns, the importance of unity, the danger of fragmentation, of the state and of families.
In the Banqueting House, the colour and form of Rubens' ceiling may have lost its sparkle through twelve successive restorations, but the light from the hall's great windows still floods in, a presage of the Enlightenment that was still a century or more away.. You lie on the floor in that elegance and it is difficult to conjure the period of blood and fear that lasted from the Gunpowder Plot to the moment Charles I stepped to his execution from this very room. But outside it was chaos and danger, the very world of King Lear.