Travel: A search for Shakespeare begins in London

Alexander Stevens

Ask Dominic Dromgoole why there’s been a resurgence of interest in William Shakespeare in the past decade or so, and he tilts back in his chair and pats the wall of his “office” — the Globe Theatre in London.

It’s a dramatic gesture from a dramatic guy.

“This theater,” he says. “This theater is his theater.”

It’s that passion for Shakespeare that made Dromgoole the right person for the job as the artistic director of the Globe Theatre.

We understand his enthusiasm. We’re Shakespeare nuts, my wife and I. Maybe you have some of the telltale symptoms. Yes, you marvel at his work — his uncanny ability to spin the human experience into poetry and drama — but you’re so obsessed, you also crave a glimpse of him. Oh, you know, logically, that doesn’t make sense. The man is four centuries gone. But you’re convinced if you dig in the right corners and get lucky, you can catch a peek.

“You can’t force a moment of closeness and intimacy [with Shakespeare], it can only happen by accident,” Dromgoole says. “But you can push and pull and poke around, and occasionally he pops up.”

That’s why we’re here in England — like countless others before us — to push and pull and poke around in hopes that he’ll pop up.

Even if we can’t get his autograph, maybe we can hear him in Jude Law’s powerful performance in “Hamlet” at the Wyndham Theatre in London, or, on the second leg of our tour, spot him in the Stratford-upon-Avon haunts of his impressionable youth.

“Shakespeare’s Globe,” built in 1997 to the specifications of the original Globe Theatre (which burned in 1613), is a logical place to start. We stood like poor groundlings watching a production of “Romeo and Juliet.” From that perspective, you understand the passion Shakespeare’s audience had for theater, willing to — no, hungry to — stand for the three hours of “Twelfth Night” or “King Lear.” Some say that Shakespeare (and the world) owes a debt of gratitude to the audiences of Shakespeare’s day. They were ravenous for theater, and their insatiable appetite is part of what fueled his prolific output. Standing in the pit, you marvel at his ability to satisfy the tastes of both you, a humble groundling, and Queen Elizabeth, who would have been sitting high above you.

The new Globe may be an accurate representation of the original theater, but the “Bankside” neighborhood surrounding the theater has changed a lot in the past 400 years. And that’s a good thing. Take the outdoor tour that’s offered by the Globe. (You can get information at the box office.) You’ll get lots of descriptive information about the seedy business of theater in Shakespeare’s day, and you’ll be glad the industry has graduated from its association with bear-bating, gambling and prostitution. And, amazingly, you may get breaking news: As recently as 1989, they discovered part of the foundation of the original Globe.

The Bankside section of London is still transforming. It was an underappreciated section of the city when the new Globe opened, and, slowly, businesses have begun to spring up around it. You’ll appreciate the closeness of the Tate Modern, a former power station that was beautifully converted into a museum that provides great views of not only ambitious contemporary art, but also the Thames River. A boat can take you from the Tate Modern to the old Tate Britain.

But don’t lose track of your mission. You’re here to find Shakespeare, and that means a visit to the West End, the Theatre District. When we were in London this past summer, we were lucky enough to see Jude Law play Hamlet in a Donmar Warehouse production at Wyndham’s Theatre. It was obvious that Law saw this as an opportunity of a lifetime, and he seized full advantage of it. His performance was so muscular, so authorative, he nearly overwhelmed the other members of the cast. It’s yet another tribute to Shakespeare that his work is still inspiring millionaire actors to bring their A-game.

We saw a “Hamlet,” but you be can sure that whenever you’re in London, you’ll find a production of Shakespeare somewhere. And if you’re like us, you’ll appreciate not only the authenticity of Shakespeare performed by Brits, you’ll also be impressed with the audience. There is a reverence for theater in London, a respect for the stage, that’s kind of thrilling. We sat down for the three hours and 45 minutes of “Hamlet,” and never heard a peep from the audience, never saw the dreaded glow and chirp of a cell phone. British actors who travel to the States often praise American audiences for their emotional reactions to plays, but if you ask me, there’s nothing wrong with an audience that respects theater as a place of worship.

Of course, it wasn’t all Shakespeare when we were in London, nor should it be. We overpaid for two tickets to the hit revival of “Oliver!” (it’s still playing) — again, the authenticity of seeing the Dickens tale in London made sense to us.

You’ll find discount ticket booths in the West End, but we’re glad we bought tickets in advance. We never would have gotten into “Hamlet” otherwise. Sure, you’ll pay full price, but you’re traveling all the way to England, so why not make sure you get tickets to the shows you really want to see?

One of the other non-Shakespeare highlights was the night we ignored the dining advice of our concierge and stumbled upon a quaint little hidden village of restaurants called Shepherd Market, just a few streets behind our hotel on Green Park. That night, our appetites for food were sated, but our appetite for Shakespeare was only whetted. The following day we hopped a train to Stratford-upon-Avon, and began the second leg of our search for Shakespeare.

Next week: Searching for Shakespeare in Stratford-upon-Avon.


Staying There: We stayed at the Athenaeum Hotel in London. What a treat. The stylish and functional room offered a beautiful view of Green Park, and the fact that we were eight stories up meant that we never heard a sound from busy Piccadilly Street below. The hotel is ideally located in one of London’s most posh and desirable neighborhoods — a quick walk across the park meant we could visit one of our “neighbors” — the Queen, at Buckingham Palace. Looks like rates now start at about $290 a night.