6 NOVEMBER 1999, Page 73


Hearing the truth

Peter Phillips

The construction of the Globe Theatre some five years ago gave an enormous boost to everyone's understanding of the style and atmosphere of late Renaissance performance practice in drama. In one move it did for acting what had taken musi- cians 15 or 20 years to achieve under the banner of authenticity. To the envy of my profession the Globe provides irrefutable authenticity — not only a stage which is exposed both to the elements and the audi- ence just as it once was, but also one which accurately reproduces the acoustical condi- tions in which Shakespeare and others would have performed. No scholar in the world has dared to argue with it.

When the Globe was built the acting world was lagging behind the musical one in trying to get back to what the Eliza- bethans had actually known. I remember the surprise of actors who for the first time were obliged to produce their voices with- out the aid of a roofed theatre, in which the sound was trapped and would not so easily fade. They found themselves fearful- ly exposed on the stage: I was told of how the lack of props and scenery by extension made them all the more isolated as speak- ers. There was no cover for their speeches. If they didn't inwardly feel what they were talking about there was no possibility of busking. For the first time they could see the eyes of their audiences. They were mer- cilessly thrown back on their own resources, and no doubt some were found wanting, but at least the result was bound to be detached from the still overbearing Romantic tradition of interpretation.

It was just this ideal of a cleaned-odt, stripped-down style which inspired so many musicians who started their careers in the Seventies. In the same way, but without the certainty of a Globe to impose the neces- sary disciplines, we fumbled our way towards a non-Romantic idiom whilst being obliged to appeal to an audience. Here again the Globe helped the pioneering actors, for the public were interested to go there right from the start, no matter what they heard when they got there; and the sparseness has taken some getting used to. The very inauthentic aeroplane flight- paths, and the rather modern behaviour of groups of school-children on an outing have not helped, but the place is reliably well-attended in a way which makes me smile wryly when I think of the size of audi- ences for concerts of music by Byrd and Tanis years ago. And yet I would still say that the comfort of a Romantic interpreta- tion strikes a chord with most enthusiasts for Renaissance culture. The only differ- ence with 20 years ago is that now there is a choice.

My interest was to hear Renaissance music performed at the Globe. Obviously music forms an integral part of many of Shakespeare's plays, and it is a good sign that the musicians who perform at the Globe have become so popular over the three seasons that they've taken part. Speaking to Mark Rylance and his wife Claire van Kampen, who is responsible for the music there, it is clear that the success of the musicians has been an unexpected bonus. This is one area where a little win- dow-dressing is acceptable and, just as importantly, the building fully supports their sound. But of course I wanted to hear polyphony — whether an authentic venue for it or not — and for some time won- dered how this might be arranged.

The opportunity came through the doubtful agency of the President of China. Yes, along with Blair, Chirac and countless other time-servers, The Tallis Scholars actively supported the state visit of Jiang Zemin, in our case by performing music by Orlando Gibbons and Thomas Weelkes at the Globe as a frame to a scene from Julius Caesar. We can hardly be accused of doing this for the money; but I agreed to it because I wanted to test the acoustics, and to join in however briefly with those heroes of the stage whom I have admired from the pit on so many occasions.

It was a difficult half an hour, no one entirely at ease with what they were doing, and the weather most unhelpful. Never having performed out of doors it hadn't occurred to me that the wind might blow my music off the stand, so I conducted with one hand while the other glued the pages to the spot. But I did stand back-stage as Brutus, Cassius and the rest went about their business; and I did hear how wonder- fully solid the sound is in that space. The big chords at the beginning of Weelkes's Hosanna never had a firmer context, thrown back at us just as they were, unadorned. What we heard was the truth. It was all or nothing, just as it is for every actor who treads those boards.