The Globe Theatre is an open air, polygonal playhouse, where over a thousand people sit in three covered galleries, with a further five hundred standing in the yard. The ‘Wooden O’ measures 100ft across and 54ft to the top of the stage and would, if uncoiled, represent a building of over 400ft long. This major reconstruction project, completed in June 1997, used timber from more than a thousand English oak trees.
The work on the recreation of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre represented perhaps the most challenging, exciting and at times probably the most frustrating timber framed project on site in the UK. For McCurdy & Co., who worked on the detailed design, fabrication and erection of the entire timber structure, this involvement began back in 1989. For US film director Sam Wanamaker, however, the project’s original inspiration and driving force, the Globe was a personal crusade dating back a further 40 years.
Sam Wanamaker’s quest began in 1949, when on a visit to London in search of the remains of Shakespeare’s great theatre he found only a plaque on a brewery wall near the banks of the River Thames marking the spot of the original Globe Playhouse. Wanamaker, a lover of Shakespeare, was amazed at the lack of a permanent monument and vowed to build an authentic reconstruction of the Globe as a fitting tribute to England’s famous playwright and dramatist. He immediately set about this herculean task, which would occupy him until his early death in 1993, trying to generate interest, secure a suitable site and raise funds for the project.
Finally, in 1970, there were signs of progress, the Shakespeare Globe Trust was established to raise funds, with HRH Prince Philip as the Patron and Sir John Gielgud as the Honorary President. The same year the local council in Southwark offered the trust a 0.8 acre site, at peppercorn rent, beside the River Thames at Bankside, opposite St Paul’s Cathedral. Initially the professional team comprised Pentagram Design as overall project architects, Buro Happold as Structural & Services Engineers and Boyden & Co. and Quantity Surveyors.
The next few years represented a frustrating period with numerous political, legal, and practical problems which meant that actual construction work didn’t start on site until 1987, although during this time shreds of illustrative material and historical documentation was beginning to come to light.
The particular challenge facing all those involved with the reconstruction of the Globe was the lack of real detailed evidence of what the theatre actually looked like or how it had been built. For McCurdy & Co. this is always the vital starting point for any reconstruction project and normally involves months of painstaking research in order to build up a picture of what an historic building might have looked like. This conscientious and thorough process marks the difference between McCurdy & Co.’s sense of integrity and informed approach to an historic reconstruction compared with that of a mere stage set fabrication.
A further difficulty was that the original Globe Theatre, built by master carpenter Peter Streete in 1599, burned to the ground within 14 years, after a spark from a canon being used during a performance ignited the thatch roof. However, a similar but slightly more elaborate theatre was immediately rebuilt on the same foundations and this time stood until 1642 when it was closed by the Puritans and eventually pulled down along with all the other theatres of the period.