What would it be like to go to the Theatre in Shakespeare's time?
Imagine, for a second, it’s the year 1623. You’re sixteen, with money in your pocket and looking to have fun on a Friday night. And, to make it easier, we’ll assume you’re male.
The sun has set by the time you and your best friends, John and James, have made it out. You had to go back home after work, because after a long day working as a porter, lifting heavy boxes that needed to be unloaded from the ships arriving in London, you really needed to get changed. You only wash once a month or so, unless getting splashed when it rains counts.
Above you, St Pauls’ Cathedral looms, but it has a pointy spire, and once you went there to worship outside, when the older porter you work for made you. To your left is the Tower, where your mum told you that queens were killed in the olden days. You don’t have quite enough money to take a water taxi to Southwark, where the action is, so you stroll across London Bridge, the only footbridge across town. The wooden road is lined with shops, lit by candle light. James wants to blow his cash on this new thing called ‘tobacco’ brought back from the colonies in the New World, but then he can’t get a drink later, so you advise him against it.
Back safely on the south side of the river, you face a dilemma. You could go to the Bear Pits and watch a bear fight a set of vicious dogs. You never know which side will win, or how much blood there will be. John swears that one he say a dog’s head come off! James prefers to go to the Cock Fights, where you can gamble on which chicken will win, but you remember you heard that some people cheat so that idea’s out.
Suddenly you spot a poster: What?! Mr Shakespeare has a new play out! Even better, it’s a ghost story! Instantly, all three of you have made up your minds. You HAVE to go and see this. You saw Romeo and Juliet last year, and though some of the love bits were soppy, the sword fight where Tybalt died was intense!
You check your pockets. A standing ticket is a penny, the same as your lunch for tomorrow. For two pennies, you can get a bench seat, or for three pennies, you can rent a cushion. James, for once, wants to go for the cheaper option to get more snacks. Standing for two hours isn’t that bad, and you can always sit on the floor during the interval. You each pop a penny in the box at the entrance, buy an apple each and a piece of gingerbread to share and head in.
It’s crowded and stinks. Really, really stinks. Grabbing a beer from a wandering seller helps make it bearable, but you’re so ready for the performance by the time it starts. John is nervous though: he heard that pickpockets operate in the crowd and he’s saving up for a boat ride back to visit his family.
The play starts. It’s set in Scotland, and it’s a pity they’re only talking about a battle and not performing it. Somebody shouts out a curse word and throws their shells from their bag of nuts at the actor playing the king when he says the battle is over. But then the witches come on! Wow! There’s supposed to be a storm and you can hear the thunder and see flashes of lightning. You glance up and see a rich girl gasping in the balcony seats. James sneers at these special effects: it’s only a cannonball rolling along a seesaw and gunpowder thrown into a candle, he claims. You don’t care. It’s so loud and exciting! You are truly amazed when a witch says ‘filthy air’ and you smell this gross smell of eggs as she calls it out! Well, you can see it’s a teenage boy in a wig, but who cares? He’s doing some great acting. There’s even green smoke coming out from under the stage when they make their predictions to Macbeth!
Once the interval arrives, you take a wander around. There aren’t any toilets and some of the men are just peeing where they stand so you really need some fresh air. From outside, the theatre is really impressive. It’s made of wood and has a brick base, covered in cheap white paint. The roof is only reeds rather than the proper thatch your house has. What confuses you is how inside is so magical when it’s lit by candles, and outside it looks quite cheap! They probably had to though: one of the older porters had wrecked a theatre called The Swan when he was younger by throwing chairs, and only last year the crowd pelted a group of French actors with apples when their play was rubbish.
James and John are so excited when they get back in. They had been chatting to a group of lads who worked at Smithfield market, who said the stinking smoke had been made with sulphur. That, and the ambassador from Venice had bought EVERY TICKET for a production next week. Seeing the rich people in the balcony seats is half the fun. John insists that once he saw the King, but that’s just silly. Why would someone that important watch the same plays you did? But, and this is true because you made a delivery near there, Mr Shakespeare himself lives in St Helens, just north of London Bridge. Imagine if he was here, right now! You sigh. That’s just a daydream. One of the actors is shouting that the next half will start so you go back in, holding your breath. You wonder…what will happen with that evil Lady Macbeth? Surely nothing good…