Back to bare boards for the Bard
"Groundlings throw things at the actors, don't they?" The woman from Canberra was clearly a touch nervous as she queued for the privilege of becoming one of the first Australians to visit the oak and thatch replica of Shakespeare's Globe theatre.
Neither she nor the cast of The Two Gentlemen of Verona need have worried: the 400-strong crowd who paid Pounds 5 a head for standing room in the Globe yard last Sunday afternoon could hardly have been more polite.
A handful defied the sign requesting us not to take photographs during the performance and somebody managed a solitary wolf whistle when plump playboy Thurio (Steven Alvey) appeared clad only in swimming trunks. Otherwise, we laughed and applauded in all the right places, and the closest thing to a heckle came from the wailing toddler in the top gallery.
The odds were always against Nineties' theatregoers contributing to the wooden O's "authentic" character by recreating the riotous assembly that history tells us was commonplace when the original Globe was packing them in almost 400 years ago. But the audience still had much to savour.
Few could have enjoyed Sunday's performance more than Ronald Watkins, who sat at the front of the lower gallery. Now in his nineties, Watkins taught Shakespeare for more than 20 years at Harrow and directed many of the Bard's plays in the school's Speech Room, having discovered that its dimensions approximated to those of the original Globe stage - though as a wooden D, rather than an O.
The Harrovian Shakespeare performances continued after his retirement, attracting the attention of Sam Wanamaker, the late American actor who was the driving force behind the construction of the Globe, and with whom Watkins struck up a long friendship.
"It's thanks to Sam that we have this gorgeous building," Watkins says. "The plays can now be performed in the conditions for which Shakespeare wrote and in which he acted. That makes this a historic occasion.
"What strikes me most about watching Shakespeare here is the wonderful relationship between the groundlings and the stage. There is a much stronger connection between the audience and the actors than in a conventional theatre. "
During the interval, many groundlings were having a well-earned sit-down. But Kate Hey,an epidemiology researcher at Oxford University, was still on her feet, surveying the stage and relishing the informality of the Globe experience.
"It's great that you can just pop out during the action and come back in with something to drink," she says. "That will make this a much less intimidating place for children who aren't used to sitting rigidly for two hours at a time, as you must in a conventional theatre."
Those words will be poetry to the ears of Patrick Spottiswoode, director of Globe Education, the thriving department that began building links with schools and colleges all over the world long before the first beam of the new theatre was in place. Already this year, Spottiswoode and his staff have welcomed 35,000 pupils and students for talks, tours and workshops - a 100 per cent increase on 1995.
"We cover the whole range, from key stages 2 and 3, through GCSE and A-level and on to higher education," he says. "Sam Wanamaker didn't want the Globe to be just a theatre with an education department attached, or an education department with its own theatre. He wanted a synthesis of theatre and education and that is what we offer."
Despite that commitment, the debate about the Globe's value has largely ignored education, centring instead on the vested interests of three factions: the actors and directors wondering how to cope with the conditions, the academics who argue endlessly over the original staging of Shakespeare's plays, and the heritage industry which, some fear, might turn the area around the Globe into a glorified theme park.
None of this bothers Spottiswoode, who is convinced the theatre is going to make a huge impact on the teaching and understanding of Shakespeare at home and, with thousands of overseas students already participating in Globe workshops, abroad.
"This amazing building engages the interest of young people in a unique way," he says. "I think we are going to be a catalyst for some very exciting work. After coming here, many teachers will feel able to try out different approaches to Shakespeare in the classroom and in performance.
"In addition to its obvious value for English and theatre studies, the Globe is uniquely valuable for history teaching. What better way could there be to get a feel for London in the early 17th century than by coming here?" Design and technology students will gain by looking at how the Globe was built, he says; leisure and tourism students can explore the Globe Exhibition.
From 1998, the Globe performance season will run from May to September, a timetable that will generate lucrative school bookings in the summer term, but will also leave the auditorium clear in the autumn and Easter terms, possibly for some tailor-made educational shows.
"You can't expect primary pupils to sit or stand for a three-hour performance of a set play," says Spottiswoode. "I want to explore the idea of staging selected extracts, or a carefully edited one-hour Romeo and Juliet or Julius Caesar - though the actors may have to wear thermals."
Spottiswoode might also have added that the Globe would provide the perfect resource for a teacher seeking to illustrate how far technology has moved on since Shakespeare's day. I ignored the mobile phone which chirruped into life as the opening lines were spoken and did my best not to look up at the planes that flew directly overhead every few minutes. Then, as I was being taken in by the Elizabethan surroundings, a member of the theatre staff ambled past, whispering into the mouthpiece of a head-set straight out of Mission: Impossible.
The Two Gentlemen of Verona runs until September 15. The theatre will then close for further work ready for the official opening next summer. The Globe Education Centre can be contacted on 0171 620 0202.