An invitation for you to dive right into the world of theatre when you visit England.
“I would go back again in a heartbeat. The arts are everywhere in London and it felt like I was home” – Katie Morreale
Shakespeare. We’ve all heard of the name. His books. His poems. His words. His legacy. Although he was born almost 500 years ago in 1564, we still perform his plays today. We as audience members are called upon to look actors dead in the eye, to cry because we’re laughing so much, to laugh because we’re crying so much. There are not a lot of cultural things that still ring true today this heavily, this impactful, as Shakespeare’s language does. The word I would use? Timeless. We are lucky enough that we can reach out and grab these written pieces of art at any moment’s notice.
This, is what Shakespeare in London is all about.
As Michelle Terry, the Artistic Director of The Globe says, “The plays are as eclectic, complex, simple, joyous, painful, elitist, irreverent, perfectly imperfect and as profoundly human as the human beings who present them and the human beings who watch them.”
In essence, Shakespeare is a contradiction waiting to slap you across the face in the best possible way.
Whether you’ve never seen a live piece of theatre or enjoy going to Broadway every month, I invite you to dive right into the world of theatre when you visit England. Not only will you see some breathtaking sights across the country, but you can say you witnessed a live performance of Shakespeare by famous English actors with accents – the real deal.
Every Shakespeare show is different. From live audience interaction at The Globe to drunk actors at Sh*t-Faced Shakespeare, you can see it all. And I promise, once you enter the world of theatre in London, you’ll never want to leave its beautiful contradictions, its hopeful and tragical “to be or not to be” world of wonder.
*For this article I interviewed some of my friends who also went to London/Stratford with me for some other perspectives on the theatre scene. Hope you enjoy!
Shows Seen: Hamlet; Two Noble Kinsmen; As You Like It
Actors cried on me, accidentally spat on me in heated scenes, and looked directly in my eyes just inches away.
This, describes the intimacy of a performance I witnessed at Shakespeare’s Globe. When you leave a show in happy tears, you know you saw something unforgettable, something that will never happen again even in the same show the next night.
That show for me was As You Like It at The Globe. Gender-crossing, moving, and hilariously honest. This show changed my life, and I don’t say that lightly. It pushed all boundaries of what I knew theatre to be, with girls playing guys and guys playing girls, many actors of color, and a deaf cast member signing with other actors onstage. I couldn’t take my eyes off As You Like It, and that’s something so unique to the Globe: they draw you in increasingly throughout the performance, never letting you stray from the story.
What was the most exciting thing you saw and why?
Brielle Wheeler: “There was a moment in The Globe’s As You Like It where Audrey stole a drink from a groundling , chugged it and then threw it back for them to catch.”
Favorite show and favorite actor/part:
Lydia DeLuca: “As You Like It at the Globe Theatre in London which includes my favorite actor/role – Jack Laskey as Rosalind/Ganymede. That is genuinely the best piece of theatre I have ever seen . . . every relationship matters and you always know what is going on even if you don’t understand every word of Shakespearean English . . . I heard that this show is coming back this year with Laskey and other cast members and I highly recommend anyone who has the chance to GO SEE IT!”
Anything you’d like to discuss about costumes/sound/lighting/set or no set?
Lana Canton: “During As You Like It, actors playing multiple characters transformed on stage by the flipping of costumes. It was executed so well that it was like a transition dance.”
Lydia DeLuca: “I like how the outdoor theatre allows the sky and weather to also play a role in how the story may be told.”
Me: Oftentimes as a Groundling, a standing-room audience member, you’ll never know what to expect from the skies. There was a torrential downpour for fifteen minutes when I saw Two Noble Kinsmen, and some actors and a lot of audience members got wet. But that’s the fun of live theatre—every day is different.
What did you experience with gender in theatre or with casting? Was it diverse or not?
Katie Morreale: “Most of the main characters we watched perform were gender swapped, which I thought was so inspiring. It’s as though gender wasn’t existent when they were casting shows. I believe that Broadway should look into doing this more often when casting shows because it was very eye-opening and beautiful. One of my favorite characters I saw was Rosalind which was played by a grown man, and I thought he was the prettiest human I’ve ever seen.”
Brielle Wheeler: “It was very inspiring to see pieces of art be transformed to fit today’s progressive nature of the theatre world. I believe in today’s world the idea and representation of gender and human identity should be played with, challenged, and made approachable. The arts have the power to do this and London theatre is doing just that.”
Lydia DeLuca: “As You Like It especially offered great diverse casting. Celia was played by a deaf actress, and with that brought the cast to sign the script and allowed Celia to be analyzed from a new perspective – at least for me . . . I love that the opportunity was taken to make these stories just overall HUMAN stories, without constraints.”
Any fun facts you remember from your theatre visits or Shakespeare-related?
Katie Morreale: “While doing the backstage Globe tour I learned that usually the poorer townspeople would be forced to stand to watch a show at the theater. However, nowadays, I would be more than happy to stand. In fact, I would pay more to stand than sit.”
Lydia DeLuca: “If you take a tour of the Globe at JUST the right time, you might catch some of the actors warming up on stage. Pretty cool if you ask me.”
Why is The Globe unique?
Oftentimes the same troupe will perform in multiple shows at once. For example, the cast of As You Like It was the same cast as Hamlet. People with larger parts in one show had smaller parts in the other. The woman playing Hamlet played a townsperson in As You Like It to balance line memorization. This means that these theatre troupes can get very close over time during the run of multiple shows, making for incredible performances that come from the heart and don’t feel like “acting” at all.
What I loved most:
To be a Groundling, which means you stand the entire show. If you have time, get in line with a book or hearty sandwich 2-3 hours in advance so you’re first when the doors open. Sounds like a pain? Standing room will change your Globe theatre experience x1000. Because I was first to choose where to stand, I had my elbows right on the stage in the middle. It was one of the most intimate theatre experiences I have ever experienced, where the distance is lessened for greater connectivity to the actors.
One of the actresses we saw was a little person and hands down one of the most talented individuals I’ve ever seen. She completely commanded the stage. “The girl who played the Jailer’s Daughter—she illustrated that when you base off talent and not looks, you have a richer performance” – Lana Canton
The shape of the stage:
The Globe is circle-shaped with a thrust stage, meaning the audience is on three sides of the stage in standing room. Seats are tiered in three levels with seats in the middle, right, and left side.
“My class and I were able to sit in the same seat that the Queen sat in at the Globe, which I thought was pretty amazing! (I even did the Queen wave when I sat down to make it feel extra real!)” –Katie Morreale
Show Seen: The Merchant of Venice
“Everything you see tonight is 100% real and our actor is genuinely, highly inebriated having spent the last four hours slowly getting drunk. Therefore please don’t be offended if they swear at you, undress themselves, regurgitate a bit or sing badly.”
This quote is one of the first things you see in a program for a Sh*t-Faced Shakespeare performance. Everything you thought you knew about theatre becomes unhinged, with tragedies like Hamlet becoming insane comedies quicker than you can finish your drink.
Every night a different actor in the cast is chosen to perform completely and utterly drunk (no actor ever performs drunk consecutively). Drinks of choice for the actors range from cider to rum to wine and beyond. There’s even someone in the cast whose only job is to make sure the drunk actor is safe, meaning they don’t fall off the stage or get too inappropriate with other actors in a scene.
You, as part of the audience, even have the chance to participate! Random people are given props such as a drum and a trumpet. The rule? You can sound your instrument any time you want the drunk actor to finish another drink. Strategy, my friend, is the key.
The drunk actress we saw in Merchant of Venice was hilarious; I was crying I was laughing so hard. She kept lifting her dress, flirting with the other actors, and cutting all her lines to tell the kind of crazy story she wanted. Some of the other actors onstage couldn’t keep it together and broke many times throughout the show, which made the performance even more memorable and off-the-cuff.
I highly recommend Sh*t-Faced Shakespeare shows if you’re in the mood for a night of laughter with a great group of friends—definitely a one-of-a-kind Shakespeare performance with unexpected choices every single time.
What I loved most:
Unlike other theatre troupes, this group of Magnificent Bastards pays no attention to modesty, moderation, or orthodox ways. Everyone is focused on the moment at hand, from the actors to the audience, and that goal is to just let loose and have fun. There’s even a bar in the theatre; the actors highly recommend that audience members use it to their advantage before/during the show . . .
The shape of the stage:
This stage is a proscenium theatre, which basically means your regular stage with seats right in front for the audience. I recommend getting your seats as close as possible because they aren’t elevated the farther back in the theatre you go.
Show Seen: Macbeth
“At the National, we make world-class theatre that is entertaining, challenging and inspiring. And we make it for everyone” – National Theatre
At the National Theatre I saw Macbeth, which I had only read in class. This version of the Scottish play was set in an apocalyptic time, with metal bunkers for houses and random pieces of clothing the characters found for costumes. There was a giant ramp that swung onstage with trap doors, so actors would be running up and down and through the middle of the ramp. Each of the witches had a different characteristic: one was constantly running, one spoke in a very high voice, and the other was more standstill which made quite a spectacle. Overall, this show was engrossing but not one of our favorites compared to all the other Shakespeare we saw.
The National does all types of shows, from plays to musicals and everything in between. The stage is ginormous, which lends actors and directors extra creativity for movement, blocking, and set design. This theatre definitely gave off a classy vibe, so be sure to look your best (versus the Globe where you can basically wear anything and get drenched in rain!). I could tell that the National is proud of its experimental qualities and being able to completely flip a Shakespearean show on its head.
Lana Canton: “The National Theatre—the size was massive but still felt intimate and the seats were luxurious.”
Anything you’d like to discuss about costumes/sound/lighting/set or no set?
Brielle Wheeler: “Overall, the shows we saw in London were very bare and the costumes were either simple or were made up of random things. This meant anything on stage had MEANING! I loved this. Finding the messages in the text is one of my favorite aspects of acting and directing, it was clear that everything was rooted in the ancient texts and choices were being made in homage to the works.”
Me: I agree. The costumes at the National were understated not only for an apocalyptic time but also to draw your attention elsewhere, whether that meant special effects or the speech patterns actors spoke in.
Anything you’d like to add on visiting the theatre world in London or your time there:
Lana Canton: “See all forms of theatre: traditional, modern, musical. Theatre in London can be so different than in America and it was the most amazing experience in my life to be able to experience all different types of theatre in one amazing place.”
The shape of the stage:
The National Theatre has extremely elevated seats, so you will get a fantastic view no matter where you are. I was lucky enough to be seated in row L near the center, and not a single audience member’s head blocked me during the show.
What I loved most:
Because Macbeth is so bloody and gruesome, the actors used the trap door in the giant ramp onstage to their advantage. The show began with someone’s head being cut-off and put into a plastic bag, but the actor escaped through the trap door, making it look very realistic. Definitely added to the creepiness and intensity.
Shows Seen: The Duchess of Malfi (by John Webster); Mrs. Rich (by Mary Pix); King Lear
The Royal Shakespeare Company Theatre is located in the heart of Stratford-upon-Avon where Shakespeare was born, which means you can explore where Shakespeare grew up, his house, and where he went to school besides going to the theatre. Be sure to hit up a restaurant before/after a show where you can even find the actors grabbing a drink.
Royal Shakespeare Shows are usually more elaborate with very detailed costumes, lighting and sound cues as well as sets, but they can also be minimal depending on the director’s choice. I saw my least favorite shows here (King Lear and Mrs. Rich) but also one of my favorites (The Duchess of Malfi). These three shows were directed completely differently, some with choices that confused me as an audience member and some that made me love theatre even more. If you’d like to see a show here, look into which ones are getting the best reviews.
The Royal Shakespeare Company also has one of the best gift shops I’ve ever visited, with posters, keychains, DVDs, and tshirts of your favorite Shakespeare plays, with famous quotes like “and though she be but little, she is fierce.” You can also purchase tickets to other shows here. For example, I got discounted tickets for 5 pounds to Mrs. Rich at the gift shop counter.
I highly recommend the backstage tour! Your guide will take you behind the scenes to see where the Shakespeare magic all happens, from huge prop tables to the wig department to the costume racks labeled for each show. You’ll not only learn the incredible history of the theatre but also technical secrets and shocking stories from past productions.
Favorite show and favorite part:
Brielle Wheeler: “The Duchess of Malfi, The Duchess. This. Show. I have never seen a show as POWERFUL and raw. The writing itself was rich and challenged gender roles of the time. The show’s use of blood was jarring, but deeply symbolic.”
What was the most jarring thing you saw and why?
Lydia DeLuca: “The plot itself lends to a lot of shock, but this specific performance elevated it so much through both various points of symbolism and spectacle—gallons of blood, a giant hippo, and skin suits, to name a few.”
Katie Morreale: “The Duchess of Malfi. This show was dark and interactive. They used gallons of fake blood on the stage and some audience members had to wear ponchos so that they wouldn’t get sprinkled on. Even though this was quite jarring to watch, it was also very inspiring to see all these actors risking their fears for the craft.”
What did you learn on the backstage theatre tour?
Brielle Wheeler: “A fun fact I remember from the Stratford backstage tour was that they do not allow the actors to take the theater’s elevators past the half hour call, just in case the elevator got stuck.”
The shape of the stage:
For these shows all the seats are elevated, which means you could be sitting way up top with an overview of the entire stage or right up close to the actors only a couple feet away.
The fake blood packets actors use in gruesome scenes are a specific flavor: green apple.
What I loved most:
The double stage. There’s the original Royal Shakespeare Theatre with the Swan Theatre connected on the back. This means that two shows can be happening almost at the same time. On our tour we were in one theatre and could hear the other show happening on the other side!
OUTSIDE THESE THEATRES:
What are some theatre experiences in London that changed your perception of what theatre is and what it can be?
Brielle Wheeler: “Overall, London is rooted in the arts, most specifically the South Bank around The Globe. Due to this I noticed the homeless population using the arts to find a purpose. They would perform sonnets and monologues or write poetry. This helped all people become more approachable and provides a common language. Every corner seemed to be blessed by Shakespeare in some way.
Lana Canton: “Les Mis on the West End was amazing because I didn’t get to see it on Broadway, and it has a turntable which always makes a show more dynamic.”
Lydia DeLuca: “One of the most special moments I had in London wasn’t actually in a theatre. In the middle of Piccadilly Square there was a street performer who fostered one of the most fun and inviting environments and created a spectacle right in the streets of London. I think theatre can be portrayed in many senses—not just in an actual theatre—if you have a story and some kind of role to play, you have theatre.”
*Note: These prices were what our college got us in advance—student prices, but most are consistent with typical costs
- 5 £ = Standing room
- 20 £ = Sitting lowest level, right side
Sh*t-Faced Shakespeare: 20 £
National Theatre: 50 £
Royal Shakespeare Company:
- Mrs. Rich: 5 £
- Duchess of Malfi: 30 £
- King Lear: 40 £
- Backstage Tour: 8 £
- Les Mis in Broadway Theatre District: 80 £
WHAT’S PLAYING RIGHT NOW?
Upcoming Shows For Each Theatre & Quick Synopses
- Henry IV Part I— “A ‘joyous, revealing and meaningful’ production featuring a ‘soul-soaring’ performance from a ‘dazzling Hotspur’ kicks off the Henry Trilogy”
- Henry IV Part 2—“The second installment of the Henry Trilogy sees Falstaff take centre-stage in the taverns of Eastcheap, while Prince Hal readies himself for the throne”
- Henry V—“The Trilogy concludes with ‘a larger-than-life epic’ that is ‘fast, funny, tender and tense’, as the English ‘band of brothers’ face off against the French at Agincourt”
- As You Like It—“A firm favorite among Shakespeare’s comedies and featuring some of his best-loved characters, As You Like It runs the glorious gamut of pastoral romance. A series of mistaken identities and mishaps in the Forest of Arden ultimately sees new friendships formed, and families and lovers reunited”
- The Merry Wives of Windsor—“Double-meanings, disguises and dirty laundry abound as Sir John Falstaff sets about improving his financial situation by wooing Mistress Page and Mistress Ford. But the ‘Merry Wives’ quickly cotton on to his tricks and decide to have a bit of fun of their own at Falstaff’s expense…”
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream—“Four brawling lovers, caught in a dispute of increasingly magical proportions; a crew of keen mechanicals, determined to give it their all; and one roguish sprite, hell-bent on causing as much havoc as possible… What could possibly go wrong?”
Hamlet—“Featuring foul language, outrageous behavior, terrible singing, rapidly expelled bodily fluids and dangerous swordplay Shakespeare has long been considered ‘cultural’. Think of it like Game of Thrones… with less boobs.*
*Subject to change on a show by show basis.
- Rutherford and Son— “In a Northern industrial town, John Rutherford rules both factory and family with an iron will. But even as the furnaces burn relentlessly at the Glassworks, at home his children begin to turn against him”
- Small Island— “Small Island follows three intricately connected stories. Hortense yearns for a new life away from rural Jamaica, Gilbert dreams of becoming a lawyer, and Queenie longs to escape her Lincolnshire roots. Hope and humanity meet stubborn reality as the play traces the tangled history of Jamaica and the UK”
- Top Girls— “Marlene is the first woman to head the Top Girls employment agency. But she has no plans to stop there. With Maggie in at Number 10 and a spirit of optimism consuming the country, Marlene knows that the future belongs to women like her”
- Peter Gynt— “Peter Gynt is searching for something: himself. Traveling from the mountains of Scotland to the pool-sides of Florida, he’ll meet talking hyenas, two-headed trolls and even an Egyptian Sphinx. But his ultimate transformation may not be all that he hoped for…”
- Jellyfish— “Jellyfish is the story of a first kiss, chips by the beach and coming of age with Down’s Syndrome in a seaside town. It’s a unique romance across uncharted waters which asks: does everyone really have the right to love as they choose?”
- As You Like It—“Rosalind is banished and with her best friend Celia by her side, she journeys to a world of exile. But not before catching the eye of love-struck Orlando who is also forced from The Court into the Forest. . . What ensues is a riotous combination of a feisty cross-dressing heroine, a tartan-clad fool, melodic songs, questionable poetry and laughs aplenty. Will love conquer all, or is it merely a madness?”
- Measure For Measure—“When a young novice nun is compromised by a corrupt official, who offers to save her brother from execution in return for sex, she has no idea where to turn for help. When she threatens to expose him, he tells her that no one would believe her”
- The Taming of The Shrew—“In a reimagined 1590, society is a matriarchy. Baptista Minola is seeking to sell off her son Katherine to the highest bidder . . . Cue an explosive battle of the sexes in this electrically charged love story”
- The Provoked Wife—“Lady Brute is tired of her tedious, loveless marriage and her tedious, drunk husband. When she decides to spice up her love life with a younger man, scandal threatens to ruin her”
- Venice Preserved—“A new version of this Restoration political thriller… a dark masterpiece, and a breathtaking love story”
*Brielle Wheeler, Lydia DeLuca, Katie Morreale, and Lana Canton all attend or have recently graduated from Marist College in NY. All are heavily involved in theatre with a passion for the arts.
Amanda spent two weeks in England.