Heather Neill sees Wanamaker's dream come true at Shakespeare's new Globe.
The young Sam Wanamaker first saw a replica of Shakespeare's Globe theatre at the Chicago World's Fair in 1933. It set him on a path which shaped his life. By the time he died 60 years later, his dream of rebuilding Shakespeare's most famous theatre as near as possible to its original site, on the South Bank of the Thames in Southwark, was well on the way to fulfilment.
The story of his long struggle is told in Barry Day's This Wooden 'O': Shakespeare's Globe Reborn (Oberon Books Pounds 19.99). Day's narrative is quirky to the point of causing irritation, much given to exclamation marks and "suitable" Shakespearean quotations; a firmer editorial hand might have streamlined the organisation of the copious material. Nevertheless, this is a story of passionate determination which can't help but inspire the reader.
Wanamaker, the American actor who had fallen foul of McCarthyism at home, found himself pitted against the labyrinthine ways of the British legal and local government establishment. He was - and Day is quite open about this - impetuous, sometimes difficult, often ludicrously optimistic about money, yet, partly because of these qualities, he eventually succeeded.
Southwark councillors, once his adversaries, became wholehearted supporters and young people from local schools have already benefited from years of imaginative education projects. Now that the theatre is open for its Prologue season, 75 free places are allocated to local groundlings at each performance.
The building itself, the changing plans for which are painstakingly chronicled by Mr Day, will always spark debate. No one can guarantee its "authenticity" and further questions must be asked about whether it is desirable, let alone possible, to recreate performances such as Shakespeare would have known. The first Globe was built of wood from the Theatre, a "hall" playhouse, rushed across the river out of the jurisdiction of the city fathers in December 1598. It was destroyed in 1613 when a stage cannon set the thatch alight during a performance of Henry VIII, immediately rebuilt but closed by the Puritans in 1642, and dismantled two years later.
The modern replica, the first new thatched building to be allowed in London since the Great Fire, has some 20th-century features including fire precautions. Nevertheless, it provides an excitingly different experience for contemporary audiences, whether or not they want to heckle and banter with the actors. There is an intimate relationship between stage and spectators, which can be compared with Day's atmospheric picture of Elizabethan theatre-going.
The first full production in this Prologue season - the stage is still a temporary one and final decisions about its structure have yet to be made - is Two Gentlemen of Verona, with the first artistic director, Mark Rylance, as Proteus. It is an ensemble piece without a showy main part. Rylance describes it as "one of the starting places, the second play in the Folio, arguably the first comedy, with one of the earliest performance records and many of the qualities and themes developed in later comedies."
The Globe's production is straightforward, uncluttered, in modern dress. This may constitute a disappointment for some, but at least it immediately deals with a common criticism: that the Globe will lead to Tudor-Disney productions. And the comic dog is a treat for any period.
Tickets: 0171 401 9919. Until September 15.