The play’s the thing.
It’s a quote from arguably the Bard’s most famous play . It’s what’s written on the top of the set menu for pre theatre supper at the Swan Bistro, next to Shakespeare’s Globe. It’s also a good approach to an evening that involves both.
For a woman who had Shakespeare chock up more than a third of her first degree, it’s a little shameful that it’s taken this long for us to find our way to a performance at The Globe Theatre.
It’s now up there in my top 10 experiences in London. Really, if you’re going to go and see Shakespeare somewhere in the world (and it’s not with Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline in Central Park in New York), it should be here.
The modern reconstruction of the Globe (the first having burnt down, the second having been shut in 1642) sits 250 metres from the original site. It’s hugged by the Tate Modern and some kitschy waterfront chain eateries. Overlooking the Thames, plays run in the warmer months, from May – October. This is relevant; for while all the upper seats are covered, the courtyard and the stage is open to the weather- and the performance will continue, rain hail or shine.
Standing tickets are subject to the elements, as such, they’re much cheaper than the balcony seats which are best booked ahead of time. Without reverting to awkward notions of class, the standing area is where the ‘groundlings’ used to huddle, heckle and occasionally throw ripe stone fruits.
Most of the performances run for between two and a half and three hours. That’s quite a length of time to stand, even if you are allowed to take in drinks (in fact, we saw one girl who had possibly helped herself to a little too much Pimms turn grey and keel over in Act 2, before being expertly shepherded out one of the side doors). If you’re a little sensitive perhaps smelling salts might help you last the distance.
Our virgin performance at The Globe was saldy not Twelfth Night, starring Stephen Fry (those tickets sold out before you could blink). Instead, we launched ourselves into The Taming of the Shrew; possibly more charming when it was remade with Heath Ledger and Julia Stiles, but still terrific (or as terrific as a play which endorses starving your wife into submission can be). What makes it outstanding are the comfort of the actors with the language, the way they throw themselves into the physical comedy and the simplicity of the staging. One set, a few props and minimal sound effects. The story then tells itself.
As for the rest of the evening, eating pre theatre can be a sticky thing (so much so, that back in Sydney I wrote a whole dossier on where some of the best places to get a bite before seeing a Sydney Theatre Company performance). You want your choice to be close to the theatre (I say no to negotiating public transport or parking when you’ve got a set start time). You want the location to understand that you have a hard deadline to meet. And you want it to be good enough to sustain you.
The Swan at the Globe ticks most of those boxes. Adjacent to the theatre, it’s wood panelled bistro with views out over the Thames. In winter it would be delightfully cosy. In summer, it can get a touch stifling. Up one flight of stairs is the bar, where you can have ‘British tapas’- yet you can’t book. On nights when there’s a show on by 6.30 pm it’s rammed. Upstairs from that is the restaurant, which does let you book and does a set three course menu for £26.50 per person, with three choices at each course.
Looking around the crowded dining room, there are obvious winners and losers. Those (like me) who opted for the heritage beetroot, goat curd and watercress salad starter are fine. Those that chose the crab cocktail with avocado and iceberg salad are smarting.
More satisfying are main courses of spit roasted lamb shoulder with smoked aubergine; rustic and spiked with a herbed breadcrumb crust.
There are rotisserie grills in the back of the restaurant, which also do a plodding job of turning chickens which are either served for the table, or portioned for one. It’s perfunctory, but I wish I’d ordered the lamb.
Main courses are accompanied by small pots of mustard and caramellised onion boiled potatoes.
Desserts come straight from 1972 and groan with cream and lashings of sauce; berries and chocolates sing loudest, with profiteroles and an Eton mess, which benefits greatly from a request for a restrained hand on the cream.
The food is not enough to entice you back without a play. The service is harried, but efficient with everybody in the restaurant cleared by 7.15 pm. That leaves just enough of time to duck next door, claim your cushion token (you’ll want one, after three hours on a hard wooden bench your rear will thank you) and find your seat upstairs before the 7.30pm start.
This is an area of London some slim pickings for good food. There’s ‘The Table’ over on Southwark Street (a 10 minute walk away). There’s Elliot’s, Wright Brothers and Brindisa at Borough (a 10 -15 minute walk away)- and there’s a collection of depressing chain restaurants, in the mould of Pizza Express within sprinting distance.
Sometimes, the play really is the thing. The rest of the evening is just supporting cast; charged with providing enough fuel and booze to let any misogyny on the stage slip past and the joy of the language wash over you.
If you’re in London, I’d highly recommend a visit to the Globe. And if you’re not sure if you fancy forking out £53 for an average meal in a highly convenient location, then have faith; there’s always the secondary option of a sausage roll, quickly scoffed in the courtyard at interval.
Swan at Shakespeare’s Globe
21 New Globe Walk
London SE1 9DT
Tel: 020 7928 9444
Fax: 020 7401 7250