The floor of the first Elizabethan Globe was covered with a mixture of ash and hazel shells. This was not because Tudor and Stuart playgoers nut-munched their way through tragedy and comedy alike, but because there was a soapworks nearby. When oil had been extracted from the nuts, discarded shells and wood-ash made a readily available waste material snapped up by the theatre owners, Cuthbert and Richard Burbage, and their partners in the company of actors, The Lord Chamberlain's Men, including William Shakespeare.
Money was scarce in late 1598 when the Burbages, helped by master carpenter Peter Street, dismantled the Theatre (the first playhouse of that name) in Shore-ditch and did a "flit" with the timbers across the river to Bankside. The lease of the Theatre had expired and the Burbages' indoor alternative, the Blackfriars, had not prospered. On the south bank, their neighbours were the smaller Rose theatre, bear pits and "stews" (brothels), all outside the jurisdiction of the city authorities.
Thus began one of the most famous periods in British theatre history. Just such another gets under way this week with the first performances at the recently completed reconstruction of the Globe. Next month there will be flourishes and fanfares, a visit by the Queen and a two-week Festival of Firsts, including special events, street entertainment, concerts and fireworks.
The new Globe, closer to the river than its original (the remains of which are - incredibly - to be built over, with the blessing of English Heritage, and despite the pleas of academic and artistic interests alike) makes a startling addition to Bankside. Not far away is Southwark Cathedral, where Shakespeare's brother Edmund is buried, and within yards is Bankside Power Station, soon to be transformed into a riverside Tate Gallery. Right next door, as part of the Globe complex, is another new "old" building, the red-brick Inigo Jones Theatre, based on a slightly later playhouse design, where indoor performances will be accommodated.
The Globe itself, lime-washed, timbered, thatched and open to the sky, appears to be round, but is in fact polygonal, with 20 sides and a diameter of 100 feet. All the building processes, including the thatching, have been carried out according to traditional methods. Each of the balustrade rails, or balusters, which edge the galleries, has been hand-turned following the design of one found in the foundations of the Rose (now preserved, although in the basement of a modern office block).
This is the first thatched building to be permitted in London since the Great Fire in 1666, and modern fire precautions have had to be included. In 1613, the entire audience - up to 3,000 people - left the building safely via two doors during a fire. (The modern Globe houses 1,500 and has four exits.) That conflagration, set off by smouldering wadding from a stage cannon lodged in the thatch during a performance of Henry VIII, burnt the theatre to the ground. It was rebuilt immediately, closed by the Puritans in 1642, and pulled down two years later.
Inside, in 1997, the stage is set, the scaffolding removed - just - and the gorgeous "heavens" newly painted. Last summer's Prologue season made do with a make-shift stage and temporary heavens. This, the canopy over the stage, glowing with the blues and golds of astrological signs, was paid for by money raised by schoolchildren. On the first day of the Festival, June 8, the heavens will be unveiled and the last of the "Globelink" time capsules buried. Schools which have raised money have buried mementoes of 20th- century school days in the foundations, an indication of the extent to which education is integral to the whole enterprise. The Globe may already have been voted the top tourist attraction in Europe; it also "belongs" to British school children, especially those from Southwark.
As it happens, a set text, Henry V, will open the theatre. Mark Rylance, the Globe's artistic director, is to play the king in an all-male production, dressed in Elizabethan costume, with music played on Tudor instruments. Is this "heritage" Shakespeare for tourists? Rylance and his panel of artistic advisers have chosen to mount one "authentic" production each season. This year there will be three others - The Winter's Tale, and two plays by contemporaries of Shakespeare, A Chaste Maid in Cheapside, by Thomas Middleton, and Beaumont and Fletcher's The Maid's Tragedy - all of which may be as radical and experimental as their directors choose.
Shakespeare's Globe is meant to be a laboratory of theatre, where research and experiment go hand in hand. Most of what we know about the Elizabethan theatre is conjecture; fierce academic battles rage over the authenticity of everything from the orientation of the stage to the number of intervals Shakespeare's audience would have expected. For Henry V, Elizabethan dress has been thoroughly researched and the resulting costumes, heavy and ornate, will be exhibited afterwards. There are problems, though, Rylance says: "We're struggling with the rushes at the moment." The stage is strewn, according to tradition, with reeds, which is fine as long as they remain damp. As they dry, they become slippery under the hand-sewn Elizabethan leather shoes. "I quite like it," says Rylance, "it balances the ornate artwork above the stage; it brings in the chaos at the bottom of the spectrum. But you do have to lift your feet to move around during the court scenes."
Henry V, with its reference to "this Wooden O" is the obvious choice to open the season. The Prologue requires the audience to paint its own mental pictures of court and battle. "It's all done with imagination and words," says Rylance, "It's marvellous as a heralding piece to the world of Shakespeare." It also allows for another neat reference to more recent Shakespearian tradition: its director is Richard Olivier, whose father's film of Henry V coloured the imagination of a generation.
Rylance has chosen The Winter's Tale, a late romance, because its themes of loss and regeneration seem "profound for the opening of the Globe" and are a reminder of the debt to its founder, Sam Wanamaker and its architect, Theo Crosby, neither of whom lived to see the building complete.
Running an enterprise on this scale requires management skills as well as artistic acumen. At 37, two years into the job, Rylance says that he can identify with Henry as leader. "I face the same issues, in terms of justice and mercy, on a lesser scale. And the doubts about Henry's wildness, there was something of that in the air after my Macbeth (his much-criticised Hare Krishna-style production at Greenwich two years ago), so there is resonance in this role for me." As usual, he has enjoyed the research and peppers his conversation with references to St George, Chaucer and the quest for the female, Venus conquering Mars, in the person of the Princess of France.
The last day of the Festival of Firsts, June 23, is billed as "Our Theatre" day. Four hundred children from 17 Southwark schools will perform on the Globe stage in a specially devised prologue to Julius Caesar, the first play known to have been performed at the first Globe, in 1599. This will be followed by an hour-long presentation of the play by Globe Education actors. The schools are responsible for all aspects of the day, including press and publicity, which was how four teenage enthusiasts from Kingsdale School in Dulwich came to be in consultation with Alastair Tallon, Globe Education development manager, and their business studies teacher, Jill Portwine. They and other Kingsdale media and business students are putting together a press release and organising a poster design competition in their school.
Meanwhile, downstairs at the Education Centre in Bear Gardens and in the Globe itself (where the associated exhibition attracts 500 visitors a day, even when there is no performance) groups of 11 and 12-year-olds from Belmont School in London were enjoying workshops. Globe actor-teachers belong to a group whose skills are honed by Rosemary Linnell, who once ran the Curtain in Shoreditch, one of the Inner London Education Authority's theatre-in-education centres. Neil Arksey and Camilla Evans soon had their charges on their feet, being Weird Sisters from Macbeth, learning to "own" the language. Later Julia Office could be found showing a group of 10-year-olds from Davidson Junior, Croydon, how to insult each other with relish, Elizabethan fashion. Then it was into the Pyramus and Thisbe scenes from A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Globe Education is well-established and, under Patrick Spottiswoode, its director since 1984, and Deborah Callan, his assistant, caters for all ages. Sometimes they explore further afield; you may meet German students on their way from viewing Millais' "Ophelia" at the Tate Gallery or small London children making their way from the Museum of London to Bankside with the aid of an Elizabethan map.
Summer events, sponsored by Royal Mail, will include "walkshops" around Southwark and, during matinees, seven to 11-year-olds will be able to attend "Stage 2 Workshops" while their parents watch the play. On some days there will be "cushion performances" (supported by Sainsbury's) offering free groundling places and discounted seats for young playgoers.
One day, but not this year, the floor of the yard where the groundlings stand will be raised two inches by a layer of hazel shells. If, that is, EC regulations can be negotiated: at present, hazel nuts have to be imported ready shelled. Next, some vigorous planting of English nut trees?
Globe education: 0171 620 0202 tickets: 0171 401 9919 Web page: http:www.rdg.ac.ukglobe