In Praise of Tourists

De Witt sketch of an Early Modern Theatre
De Witt sketch of an Early Modern Theatre

In 1596, a Dutch traveller Johannes de Witt visited the Swan playhouse, and drew a sketch and wrote in his diary about the trip. And it’s lucky that he did! This is the best resource we have of what the theatres of Shakespeare and his contemporaries looked like.

Yet flip forward a few hundred years and I feel that tourists don’t get the appreciation they deserve. A ‘production for tourists’ says less-then-impressed Dominic Cavendish reviewing Richard II at the Globe, as if all visitors to London want to do is see a Beefeater, snaffle a Ye Olde Hog Roast and drop in for twenty minutes of gawping at Elizabethan Theatre. (And even if you do fancy a bit of of ye olde fayre does that mean you can’t appreciate good theatre too?)

When I was in Paris – as a tourist – I went to the Comédie Française to see Troïlus et Cressida.

I wasn’t quite sure how I’d handle Shakespeare in French (I can make polite conversation, do well with food & drink and read OK) but I was desperate to see inside the theatre and I was slightly familiar with Troilus and Cressida from attending an original pronunciation production in the pelting rain at Shakespeare’s Globe. (Not my favourite night I’ve ever spent in a theatre but…interesting.)

I absolutely loved it! I splashed out for a really good ticket, and it was an absolute bargain. I was personally guided to my luxurious red velvet seat and settled down to somehow I understood and enjoyed every moment of the play. To this day it’s one of the best Shakespeare productions I have ever seen. So although I was a tourist, I think I was still a pretty exemplary member of the audience and I definitely had and appreciated a high-quality experience.

To be fair, I have on several occasions seen tourists – from both the UK and abroad – nip into the Globe for a ten minute flash of a play and then depart, no doubt feeling they’ve ‘done’ the Globe. (I’m ashamed to admit that certain members of my family, not tourists at all, have also done this. ‘What was the play?’ I asked. ‘Don’t know.’ ‘Did you like it?’ I said. ‘Don’t know really, we only stayed for a few minutes.’ I seethed silently.) But is this better than not visiting the theatre at all? I’m still undecided on that. I’ve many times led tourists on backstage tours and I have to say that 99.9% of the time it’s a delightful and for me as a guide, often an enlightening experience. I’ve met wonderful people from all over the world, many of them passionate about theatre and with the most fabulous stories to tell of their experiences in their home-town theatres, both professional and amateur.

Frankly I’m thrilled that so many tourists want to come to London and have a taste of our theatre and I welcome any visitors with open arms. And tourists – in return, just google the story of the show before you see it and try to stay to the end. (Unless it’s awful, in which case leave quietly at the interval with my Londoner’s blessing.)

For more visit the Backstage Theatre Tours website

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