Jo Caird: A Good Week for Elizabethan Dramatists
Aside from being named after great Elizabethan dramatists, these two theatres don't appear to have very much in common. The Globe is a replica of the 17th-century playhouse for which Shakespeare wrote many of his plays, complete with groundlings yard, 'heavens' and 'frons scenae'; the Marlowe is a startlingly modern structure whose steel and oxidised copper exteriors and sleek and sexy auditorium design stand out against Canterbury's traditional surroundings. The Globe stages the works of Shakespeare and other Elizabethan and Elizabethan-inspired dramas; the Marlowe is a number one touring venue which will receive all manner of commercial shows in addition to performances by subsidised companies including Glyndebourne and the Philharmonia Orchestra. The Globe is in the heart of the UK's cultural capital, surrounded by other world-class arts venues; the Marlowe is the only theatre and music venue of its size in a region with relatively little provision for the performing arts.
In spirit though, the theatres – or at least the announcements they've made this week - are perhaps not so different after all. Globe to Globe is a remarkably ambitious undertaking. The festival is costing £1.8 million, is a logistical nightmare (two shows by two difference companies practically every day), and will succeed or fail largely on the theatre's ability to sell a substantial enough number of the theatre's 600 standing places and 900 seats at each performance. Some of the performances will be relatively easy to sell – I'm thinking of shows such as the South Sudan Theatre Company's Cymbeline and the National Theatre of China's Richard III – but some will be a major challenge for the theatre's marketing department, something Globe artistic director Dominic Dromgoole joked about during Monday's press conference when he mentioned niche theatrical delights such Gabriel Sundukyan National Academic Theatre's King John in Armenian.
The Marlowe may not be programming the sort of challenging work like that we can look forward to as part of Globe to Globe, but it is undoubtedly a brave and risky venture in itself. The £25.6 million project, in the planning since 2001, was put to a vote by Canterbury City Council in 2009. It would have been all too easy to shelve the plans at that stage, but the council went ahead, with cross-party support, putting £17 million of public money into the arts via this unashamedly modern and beautiful construction. The 1930s Marlowe cinema – converted for performing arts use in the 1980s – and the second hand car dealership that stood next to it were torn down and the new, fit-for-purpose Marlowe has risen in their place. When you consider the potential pitfalls of building a new theatre with public money, in a recession, on the edge of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the fact that the Marlowe is here at all is quite an achievement. The fact that it is opening on time and on budget is all the more impressive.
In addition to the 1,200-seat main auditorium, the Marlowe boasts a 150-seat black box studio, which will used for smaller touring productions, youth theatre projects and artists' residencies. Mark Everett, the theatre's director, knows his programme must be broad in order to reflect the wide range of audiences the theatre will attract, but hopes to be able to include some work, not just in the studio space, but in the main theatre too, that will "make people think”. It's an encouraging stance from the director of a building that will be on its own funding-wise from 2014, when its financial support from the council is curtailed.
Who knows what Shakespeare and Marlowe would think of the projects being pursued in their names? I like the idea of the pair sitting somewhere in the afterlife comparing their theatres playing host to musicals like Grease and Avenue Q on the one hand and performances in isiXhosa, Maori, and Korean on the other. I hope they'd find it all incredibly exciting. I know I do.