We all love a visit to the theatre. But while seeing a good play affords one kind of pleasure, it’s a quite different experience to visit backstage and see the workings of the theatre.
I always think it’s a bit like seeing a magician explain how he does a trick – the magic has gone, but it’s been replaced by a new fascination with the mechanics of the trick.
If you want to see backstage, quite a few London theatres will let you do so as part of a guided tour. The Royal Opera House, for instance, offers backstage tours for £10.50 a ticket three times a day (not Sundays) and also has a four o’clock ‘Velvet, gilt and glamour’ tour which focuses on the architecture of the house and visits the auditorium, including the Royal Retiring Room (unless you’re a guest of royalty, this is your only chance to see it).
If you’ve ever wondered how Shakespeare’s working day might have gone, visit the Globe Exhibition at the Globe theatre; admission includes a guided tour of the theatre so you can get an idea of how it works, whether or not you want to see a performance in the evening. Remember, though, that when the theatre season is on, the exhibition is only open in the morning as the stage is needed for rehearsals after lunch.
And this year all the world really is a stage with the World Shakespeare Festival in progress and showcasing multilingual productions from as far afield as Brazil, Tunisia, Iraq and Russia to name but a few.
The British Museum has also laid on an intriguing “Shakespeare – Staging the World” exhibition which takes a Shakespearean perspective on London as a global city.
Perhaps the most interesting backstage tours for anyone with an interest in theatrical production is the tour at the National Theatre. This theatre has three separate auditoria of different sizes, and the tour also includes a visit to the production workshops and paint frame so you can see how the stage scenery and props are put together. The tour runs several times a day on weekdays, and less frequently at weekends.
The Theatre Royal, Drury Lane offers a tour that is rather more focused on the history of the theatre than its workings. Actors portray historical figures who were associated with the theatre, such as the playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan, and a Mistress Nell Gwynne, better known for her relationship with Charles II than for her acting.
Nell Gwynne did have a ready wit though, which makes me think she may have been a very good comic actor in her day. Her carriage was once surrounded by a mob who took her for Charles’s unpopular French Catholic mistress, the Duchess of Portsmouth, shouting out ‘The whore! The whore!’ With great presence of mind she stuck her head out of the window and said ‘Good people, you are mistaken; I am the Protestant whore’. Cue applause and exit!
If you don’t fancy seeing a single theatre in depth, but would rather stroll round theatreland, the Society of London Theatre offers a walking tour of the theatres with Secret London Walks. There’s a ‘straight’ tour which tells you about the theatres’ history and also shows you such sights as the Garrick Club, largely populated by actors (and of course named after one). New this year, there’s also a Haunted Theatreland tour with Diane Burstein, which takes you through the back alleys of Covent Garden and lets you learn about the many ghosts said to occupy London theatres. You’ll also learn some of the stories behind theatrical superstitions – why actors never whistle on stage (unless it’s in the script), why they won’t mention the Scottish Play and why they don’t wish each other ‘good luck’.
Finally, back to Shakespeare. A Shakespeare city walk with Declan McHugh uncovers little known locations not in Southwark where the Globe is located but north of the Thames in the City of London – where Shakespeare lived, where the Blackfriars theatre stood, and where he believes King Lear and Othello were actually written. Mr McHugh is an actor as well as a tour guide and illustrates the tour with speeches from the plays – so you get more than just a tour, you get a theatrical performance.You could tie together quite a pleasant day taking his Shakespeare tour before heading over to the Globe – or the other way around – and perhaps finish off with a performance at one of London’s many theatres for a complete Thespian Day Out.
Fancy staying in a hotel with a Shakespeare connection? Luxury Kensington hotel The Milestone is on the site of a building which used to be the residence of a certain George Davenport, who was an officer in the Royal Bodyguard and claimed Shakespeare as his grandfather.