Movie screens in August are going to be filled with the exploits of Shakespeare's greatest rogue, Sir John Falstaff, in performances from the historic Globe Theatre in London. Roger Allam plays Falstaff in Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, which are part of the Shakespeare's Globe London Cinema Series.
The screenings are of productions from the Globe's 2010 season, which amounted to a mini-Falstaff festival, because it also included The Merry Wives of Windsor, Shakespeare's good-humored farce that portrays the disreputable knight in a lighter vein than the Falstaff of the two Henry IV plays.
"We tend to provide a broad and generous umbrella for each season to pull things together," Globe artistic director Dominic Dromgoole said in a phone interview. "We called last season 'Kings and Rogues,' and part of it was celebrating the most famous of all rogues, which is Falstaff."
The cinema series opened in June with a screening of the Globe's Merry Wives, a lively and colorful production that starred Christopher Benjamin as Falstaff. The series also includes Henry VIII in September.
Perhaps the greatest virtue of these productions is the setting. The Globe is modeled after the open-roof theater, made of wood and thatch, that was built in 1599 for Shakespeare's players company and was destroyed by fire in 1613 (during a performance of Henry VIII when a cannon used for special effects misfired and ignited the structure). The reconstructed Globe opened in 1997, some 750 feet from the site of the original theater on the south bank of the River Thames.
The theater has three tiers of raked seating for about 900. There is also room for about 600 "groundlings" to stand in the pit by the stage.
"What we do here is very unique because it is done in the architecture and the place Shakespeare wrote for," Dromgoole said. "We present Shakespeare close to how he imagined his work being performed."
The Globe has a special problem as a theater with no roof, since it has been known to rain in London during the spring and summer, when the season is performed. The stage and seating area are covered, but the pit is not.
"The rain can be horrendous," Dromgoole said. "Buckets came down for one performance of Merry Wives, and we had to film around that. But we carry on. We always perform in the rain and the groundlings get very wet. But they sort of enjoy getting wet, or they put up with it."
Partly because of the risk of rain, the Globe productions are filmed, unlike those of the Metropolitan Opera, whose pioneering series of live performances beamed into movie theaters is now 5 years old. England's National Theatre also has plays transmitted live to screens in the United Kingdom. Of course the time difference is a barrier to live performances sent from London to the United States.
The Globe films two performances of a play, using seven cameras, then splices the best footage together. The aim is to make something for posterity.
"The value of these is going to be considerable through time in the cinema, on television, DVD, and then especially online and educationally going into the future," Dromgoole said. "We want to be careful to make something that is as well put together as it can be so it will last many years."
More and more shows are taking the stage-to-screen route. This year, Broadway productions of the Tony Award-winning musical Memphis and an Oscar Wilde classic, The Importance of Being Earnest, were presented on movie screens. The New York Philharmonic's concert version of the Stephen Sondheim musical Company was also shown in theaters.
In June, the showing of The Merry Wives of Windsor drew a pretty good-sized crowd to a Pinellas Park multiplex, but Dromgoole isn't expecting box office hits. "We hope that people will storm along to the cinemas to see Shakespeare, because that would be a quick win, but we're not deluding ourselves about that," he said. "This is going to be a long, slow earner over the next 20, 30 years, by which time we'll have the complete works done."
The Henry IV plays are renowned for the layered richness of the relationship between Falstaff and Prince Hal, the future King Henry V, played by Jamie Parker. Set in a time of wrenching disorder in England, they are two of Shakespeare's greatest history plays.
"I think people will be familiar with Falstaff and Hal, but they won't be as familiar with the title character or the nature of the story," Dromgoole said. "The plays are thrilling, with great psychological depth. They're about rebellion, about politics, about armies, about killing. And the nature of the comedy is dangerous, with an enormous amount at stake."
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716.