‘We The People’ at the Globe

I finally visited the Globe theatre for the first time this week. That’s not because I’ve been avoiding it—every time I walked past on the way to Tate Modern, I thought ‘I really must go to the Globe some time’— but I never got round to it.

Since the whole point is that it’s a reconstruction of an Elizabethan theatre, it might have made more sense to see a play from the period, but in fact I saw We The People by Eric Schlosser.

Ben Franklin and an air stewardess

N.B. Picture may not be representative of actual play.

Dealing with the play first: it was a dramatic reconstruction of the process of writing the U.S. constitution, based on primary sources. Schlosser, who wrote Fast Food Nation and Reefer Madness, is primarily a journalist/non-fiction writer, and this is a very straight presentation of history on the stage. He does his best to bring out the personalities of the men involved and find human interest and humour to leaven the mix a bit, but to be honest, a committee of lawyers and politicians discussing constitutional law doesn’t make for dynamic theatre. It was interesting and somewhat entertaining, but it all felt a lot like being in school.

I heard Schlosser on the radio talking about the play and saying that one of the things that interested him was that Americans tend to treat the constitution as a semi-sacred document (my paraphrase) and that he wanted to bring out its history as a document written by human beings, a product of compromise and a particular historical moment. Which is a worthwhile project, and I think he was successful, although for me the constitution never had those associations particularly.

With the subject of nation-building in the air at the moment, it’s worth being reminded that the process in our own countries’ histories was slow and erratic. A lot has changed in the meantime which might provide a framework and some help, but still, we can’t be surprised if countries like Iraq, Bosnia and even Russia take many years to even achieve stability, let alone all the features of a mature democracy. There’s no guarantee that they will ever achieve those things.

One touch worth noting: at various breaks in the action, a couple of musicians, dressed, like the rest of the cast, in C18th clothing, and played and sang West African music. One was playing a many-stringed instrument that I think was probably a kora, and the other some kind of stringed instrument played with a bow. Schlosser explains:

It’s a reminder of those who were not invited to the room. Slavery was crucial to the economy of the United States, but slaves had no voice whatsoever in society. In the play the music offers them a means to be heard. And it’s wonderful music.

I like the idea, although I’m not sure how well it worked theatrically. I’m not sure how many of the audience made the connection. And in a rather literal play, it seemed a bit out of place. Considering they were supposed to represent the voiceless, it’s an unfortunate irony that the musicians’ names aren’t listed on the website. They were named in the programme, but I don’t have it with me; one was Senegalese and the other was Gambian.

As for the theatre: it’s a striking building and has a plausibly authentic feel, although I believe it’s reconstructed on the basis of fairly thin evidence. I think probably the most interesting difference from a conventional theatre isn’t that it’s in the round—I’ve been to quite a few productions staged like that over the years anyway—it’s the natural lighting. Stage lighting provides a natural focus on the actors and away from the audience, and it helps the audience concentrate. In daylight, the actors don’t have that advantage. I don’t think this particular play made especially good use of the theatre, in fact; the actors moved among the audience standing in the pit sometimes, but most of the play consisted of men talking to each other and was naturally static; it could as easily have been staged in a proscenium arch theatre. Frankly it could almost have been a radio play. I’d be interested to see something more dramatic there sometime. Shakespeare, perhaps.

Oh, and if you visit and you have a seat, get a cushion. They rent them in the theatre. The seats are wooden benches, and it’s tough on the buttocks. They also rent out seat backs for some lumbar support, which is what I had, but I didn’t think it was very comfortable.

» The picture of Benjamin Franklin and an air stewardess is a section of a photo by Matt Wright and is used under—and therefore available under—a by-nc-sa Creative Commons licence.

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