Elizabethan-era music floats on the light spring breeze as a 900-strong crowd files into Sydney’s Pop-up Globe theatre.
Beneath a painted sun and blue sky, as the clock on the tower of the neighbouring Sydney Cricket Ground ticks over to 7.30pm, The Merchant of Venice begins.
Among the crowd are 300 people filling the standing room-only “Groundlings” section. (In the Bard’s day, groundlings – theatre-goers too poor to afford a seat – would stand in an area just below the stage.)
This is just one of the many ways in which the Pop-up Globe – the world’s first full-scale working replica – imitates the playhouse built by Shakespeare and his company by the River Thames in London in 1614. That theatre replaced the original Globe, which burnt down after the firing of a cannon ignited its straw roof.
Having welcomed half a million people to performances since 2016, the Pop-up Globe – at the Entertainment Quarter in Moore Park since August – has extended its Sydney debut until December 16, thanks to popular demand.
Originally planned as a one-off for Auckland two years ago, in celebration of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, the theatre is now in its fourth season. It played to sell-out crowds in Melbourne last year.
Interaction with the audience is a distinguishing feature of the Pop-up’s productions of the Bard’s centuries-old masterpieces.
In Merchant of Venice, Solanio and Salarino sit on the edge of the stage, feet dangling into the audience, urging spectators to gather around as they start telling the story of Antonio, the Merchant of Venice.
The pair tries to help Portia, a rich heiress, pick out suitors from the crowd. The Prince of Morocco, who is attempting to woo Portia, asks a woman standing in the Groundlings to kiss his hand. He pauses until she approaches, then snatches his hand away at the last second, for comic effect.
Meanwhile, resident comedian Lancelot Gobbo struts around the stage as if it was a catwalk, instructing the audience to take photos as he emulates Usain Bolt’s signature “lightning bolt” pose.
Among the enraptured spectators at a recent performance was Rhonda Newman, visiting the Pop-up Globe for the first time after being given a ticket for her 78th birthday by her daughter, Cate Patterson.
“I was thrilled to bits, because when I was at school … we studied a lot of Shakespeare,” said Ms Newman. That was in the 1950s, when North Sydney’s Old Vic Company hosted productions.
Ms Patterson, 48, who sat beside her mother in the wooden stalls as the theatre came to life around them, said while it had been hard for her to understand Shakespeare when growing up, she now had a new respect for his work.
“Both my daughters studied The Merchant of Venice at school, whilst I studied Macbeth,” she said. The latter – along with A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Comedy of Errors – is also part of the Pop-up’s Sydney program. Ms Patterson is considering going to Macbeth too.
But it is not just adults who are falling in love with Shakespeare for the first time, thanks to the Pop-up Globe.
In the Groundlings section, a quartet of fresh-faced Year 12 students from Christian Brothers’ High School in Lewisham were watching the play for the first time. Their English teacher had recommended they pop down to see it, The Merchant of Venice being part of the new Stage 6 syllabus.
They all relished the experience. “Having only read a bit of the play so far, it was really eye-opening,” said 17-year-old Callan Macbeth (no relation to the ill-fated Scottish general).
“It’s a lot more of an experience watching the play, as opposed to reading it.”
All four agreed they now had a greater appreciation for Shakespeare’s work, having seen it performed live.
The Pop-up theatre was designed by a Sydney academic, Tim Fitzpatrick, who conducted ground-breaking research into the 1614 Globe, scrutinising historical documents and also studying the reconstructed Globe Theatre in London.
Associate Professor Fitzpatrick, from Sydney University’s Department of Theatre and Performance Studies, told Hatch he had enjoyed seeing audiences attend en masse.
“It’s great to see so many young people there: schoolchildren, university students, of course, but also just 20-somethings and 30-somethings – an age group that’s under-represented in traditional Australian indoor theatre audiences.”
Associate Prof Fitzpatrick believes the building itself is a major contributor to the Pop-up’s popularity.
“The design I developed as the best interpretation of the historical data should have turned out, I believed, to be an excellent theatre,” he said.
Performing in the the four plays is a mix of actors from the Pop-up Globe’s Southampton and Buckingham companies in England.
All of the major roles – including the female parts – are played by men, as was the case in Shakespeare’s day. During The Merchant of Venice, the audience wept tears of laughter when Portia and her lady-in-waiting, Nerissa, both played by men, disguised themselves as male lawyers to defend her love interest, Bassanio.
Spectators were close enough to see the creases form on Shylock’s forehead during his trial for failing to repay money owed.
Earlier, Portia told a 12-year-old girl in a Star Wars T-shirt to “lay down and die”. At the second time of asking, the girl complied – but not before replying: “I heard you the first time!” to howls of audience laughter.
Quoted by the theatre website BroadwayWorld Australia last month, the Pop-up Globe’s founder and artistic director, Miles Gregory, said he was thrilled the production was being extended until December.
“We’re delighted that Sydney’s critics and audiences alike are having such a good time at Pop-up Globe,” he said. “We’re thrilled to have the opportunity to share our passion and enjoyment with even more people in our extended season.” – @BBassilious