If the Bard were able to attend this year's fourth full season at Shakespeare's Globe Theater in London, he would certainly feel at home in this perfect replica of the theater where he was both resident writer and owner.
But in the production of his 1611 comedy, "The Tempest," he would find a surprise: a woman - Vanessa Redgrave - on stage. And to deepen the shock, Redgrave will be playing a male, Prospero, Duke of Milan.
Crossovers were actually common in Elizabethan theater - but only in the other direction. Women were never allowed on stage, so rouged and wigged males took all female roles.
When Mark Rylance, the Globe's artistic director, made his gender-bending announcement in January, one motive was to balance his own self-casting as Cleopatra in the 1999 season. The chance to book one of Britain's best actresses was surely another motive. Not to mention that Redgrave will draw huge audiences to the already popular and profitable Globe. The theater made about $1.5 million last year, a figure that would no doubt please the previous owner.
Actually, Shakespeare controlled only one-eighth of the original Globe, but the playwright accounted for most of its success. He was also somewhat responsible for the blaze that destroyed it in 1613: A cannon fired during a performance of "King Henry VIII" ignited the thatch roof.
A second Globe, built the next year, lasted until 1644, when it was demolished by London's puritan city fathers, who closed all theaters.
The new, third Globe rises on the south bank of the Thames, a few hundred yards west of the original site. Except for an elevator and a few additions required by fire laws, the theater is a slice of Elizabethan London.
The building's roof, which circles the open-air central yard, is thatch - the first thatched building to be put up in London since the Great Fire of 1666. The exposed green-oak timbers, cracking as they dry, were fashioned to 16th-century standards. The white lime plaster, which covers lathing between timbers, also followed Elizabethan rules - with one substitution. The original recipe called for cow hair, but since modern herds no longer sport hair long enough for proper strength, goats volunteered.
The pavement around the theater, however, is not Elizabethan. Many deep-pocket contributors have paving stones engraved in their honor. Before a performance, it's fun to identify familiar names, like Monty Python graduates John Cleese and Michael Pallin. Or actors Alan Bates, Laurence Olivier, and Vivien Leigh. The "Dark Lady" is also represented.
Within the "playhouse," as Elizabethans called it, you feel as though you've been transported to the past.
Surrounding the open yard, where original "groundlings" could stand through a performance for a penny, are three tiers of sheltered wooden seats. (Authentic wooden seats, by the way, so bring or rent a cushion.)
The theater can hold 1,500 spectators. Scholars might note that the authentic capacity should be 3,000, but modern fire regulations aren't controlled by time machines.
The stage itself is brightly, if not gaudily, painted. It sits five feet high, on a rectangle that juts halfway into the yard. A balcony, stage rear, can support a king on a castle parapet or Juliet as she pines for Romeo.
The night sky, a brave firmament suitable for romance, is painted on the underside of the stage's canopy. From stage doors left and right, all the world enters and departs: star-crossed Ophelia, mad Lear, the treacherous Richard III, the murderous Lady Macbeth, fluent Mark Antony, and, of course, Prospero.
To see any of these characters, book early. Last year I called two months in advance and had almost no selection. Although several hundred tickets are held for the day of each performance, if you wait, you might find yourself a groundling. The price for standing room is under $10, but only the first half-hour of standing feels historically romantic.
Along with "The Tempest," two other Shakespeare plays will be performed this summer: "Hamlet," starring Mark Rylance, and "The Two Noble Kinsmen," which Shakespeare co-wrote with John Fletcher. A fourth period play, Richard Brome's comedy, "The Antipodes," rounds out the repertory selection. The season ends with a Sunday afternoon performance of "Hamlet," on Sept. 24.
Prices for all the plays are cheap by London standards, with upper-gallery rates just over $30. Booking can be done by phone from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. through the Globe box office (011-44-20-7401-9919); by phone to Ticketmaster (no fee), 24 hours a day, (011-44-20-7316-4703); by FAX (011-44-20-7902-1475); or by mail: Shakespeare's Globe Box Office, 21 New Globe Walk, Bankside, London SE1 9DT.
The Globe complex is more than just a place to enjoy plays. It includes a permanent exhibition, a library, and a research-education center.
Throughout the summer, the Globe also presents workshops, craft fairs, exhibitions, tours, and concerts. Guided tours are offered year-round. There is also a restaurant, open daily for lunch and dinner; a cafe is open from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m., or until after the last performance. A gift shop features serious books of criticism, along with texts and videotapes of Shakespeare's plays. And for the merely human writer - erasers.
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