Review – Holding Fire at The Globe

Monday 3 September 2007

Holding Fire trousers

What is The Globe Theatre for? It’s a strange idea. Yes, it was in sooth an ambitious and fascinating project and gives a good (if sanitised, which appeals to Phil of course) idea of what the building and the staging might have been like in Shakespeare’s day apart from the flight path overhead. But, really, what’s it for? Or what is it good for (air conditioning aside)? And who is it for?

The easiest question is the last. It’s principally for tourists. American tourists principally, one imagines. And, of course, anyone remotely interested in theatre history should visit it once to see what it’s like.

Andrew discovered this rule by going twice.

His first visit to see Titus Andronicus last year turned out to be highly successful – it was a full house, there was some truly top notch gore and there was the unexpected bonus of seeing several patrons being carried out on stretchers.

But while it’s interesting to see a Shakespeare play in its original setting, it’s not the real thing. It’s not the detail of the reconstruction that’s at fault, it’s the audiences: they aren’t noisy enough. There’s no heckling, no cheering: and without that the action on the stage seems a curiously long way away and rather lost. Actually, it’s probably just as well, because today’s actors wouldn’t be able to make themselves heard in The Globe over an Elizabethan audience.

If you’re a groundling you presumably get a better experience although Andrew can’t stand up for one stop on the tube to let a pregnant woman sit down, let alone for the many hours required to see a Shakespeare all the way through.

Or, indeed, for the two and three quarter hours of Holding Fire, a new play by Jack Shepherd.

Anyway, enough of the thinking. You see what happens when Andrew goes to the theatre without Phil to guide his attention to the important stuff?

Luckily, the spirit of Phil trailed Andrew to The Globe like the piece of toilet paper stuck to his heel and so the first thing to mention is the rather distracting trousers. You will note from the image at the top of the page that the trousers had strange markings on them and for Andrew and his second-best friends and would-be Whingers Mark and David this was the number one topic for discussion during the interval (on the subject of which: the Globe’s drinks stands have pre-poured coffees, soft drinks and wine. How fabulously sensible is that?)

Yes, the trousers. We did wonder whether it was something to do with the general dirt and grime of early Victorian England. Soot entered the discussion and we decided that it must have got everywhere and was almost certainly the cat fur of its day.

Anyway, the play. Or, actually, the plays because essentially this is two plays bolted together. One is about the Chartist movement, a fascinating period of would-be revolution in English history which effected significant changes to the system of government but which is here rendered irretrievably dull.

The second play is a picaresque (a word the Whingers are thrilled to finally be able to work into a review) story of a poor London flower seller called Lizzie Baines (Louise Callaghan, rather good) who is given the opportunity to work as a scullery maid somewhere in the north of England.

Holding Fire murder

There she meets boot boy Will (Craig Gazey with a fine line in comic delivery) and they fall in love. Will commits a brutal murder (sadly off stage), a crime of passion of which we get to see only the aftermath although it is still marvellously bloody.

This effects Will and Lizzie’s flight back towards London during which their paths cross those of the Chartists.

The big problem is that Lizzie’s play and the Chartist’s play really don’t have anything to do with each other. Her involvement as a messenger for the Chartists does not come about as a result of any great commitment to the cause, but out of gratitude to to someone who has given them a lift. Indeed it’s difficult – other than from the sadly not-then-realised metaphorical helicopter view – to see how someone fighting for their very survival might become a champion for equal-sized electoral districts (and to refresh you mind, the other equally undramatic Chartist demands are listed in the footnotes). Or perhaps that’s the point of the play. Who knows?

Shepherd wrote the play specifically for the Globe and on paper (presumably where he wrote it) the idea of the stirring speeches to the crowd was perfect for addressing the groundlings. But with a more-than-half empty (or less-than-half full, depending on your outlook on life) house one didn’t really get the idea of potential revolution as the scattering of people in the yard leaning indolently against the stage didn’t seem very stirred at all. Nor was Andrew who found himself instead marvelling at the fact that he was in the very same place that an episode of Dr Who was filmed.

There were a few bright points:

  • Artistic director Dominic Dromgoole appeared on stage to apologise for the fact that the accordionist and ballad singer wouldn’t be appearing due to a trapped nerve which was a relief. Really, no apology was needed – after all, the definition of a gentleman is a man who can play the accordion, but refrains from doing so. And what with the various creaky staircases and trundling barrels, an accordion would have put an end to any chance of hearing the actors.
  • Some of the staging is very imaginative – glimpses of a kitchen beyond the doors, the emergence of a sickly employee from the smoking bowels of a mill.
  • The constantly shifting locations which occasion the cast to adopt a variety of regional dialects to great effect (Mostly. Boeing, Boeing has set back the gravitas of the Welsh accent by about 40 years)

But on the minus side:

  • The production tries too hard to fill the Globe with activity – the Punch and Judy show and the bare knuckle fighting are tiresome (amusing t-shirt tan notwithstanding).
  • Conversely, there’s also a lot of “telling” rather than “showing” – especially with regard to the Chartists, but also much of the interesting stuff happens offstage: the murder, something in Birmingham, Chartist leader William Lovett’s arrest.
  • Some distracting language: “like a dripping tap filling up the cistern of our needs”

Holding Fire was warmly received by the critics and perhaps that’s merely gratitude for the fact that there is for once a new play to watch.

Holding Fire nooseThe highlight for Andrew was the very good on-stage execution in which Will is hanged for his crime. This was so well done that Andrew was actually impressed and wondered idly how it was done until he looked at the pictures on the Globe’s website (right).


Those Chartist demands in full:

  • Universal suffrage for all men over the age of 21
  • Equal-sized electoral districts
  • Voting by secret ballot
  • An end to the need for a property qualification for Parliament
  • Pay for members of Parliament
  • Annual election of Parliament

One Response to “Review – Holding Fire at The Globe”

  1. Daveonthego Says:

    I thought this might inspire the whingers to go on the road with their own and much rehearsed aestheist or aristarchist demands.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s