In 1941, an incendiary bomb landed on Harrow's Speech Room. The fore-curtain and floodlights were put out of action, and the story goes that the roof was also partially damaged, allowing natural light to seep in.
Ronnie Watkins, an English beak at the time, looked at the ‘wooden D’ as he called it, and saw an opportunity to present a Shakespeare play in conditions approaching those of Shakespeare’s original Globe playhouse – in communal space, with shared light between actor and audience. So the Harrow tradition of annual Shakespeare in performance started, and it has continued almost unbroken to this day. Although in more recent years some directors have chosen the Ryan Theatre rather than Speech Room, the approach – pacey, clear, ensemble-driven – remains true to the original vision.
In the 1980s, when Shakespeare’s Globe playhouse was being rebuilt on Bankside, Ronnie Watkins was asked to be an advisor, and the rehearsal room at the complex now carries his name. In 1994, when the new Globe was still a shell, Harrow was invited to perform its annual production at the venue and became the first company to present a full-length Shakespeare play within the partially-built walls. The play that year was The Taming of the Shrew, and featured Benedict Cumberbatch and Nick Luck as the sparring leading characters, Petrucio and Katherine.
This spring, Harrow has been invited back to perform at the Globe. On 24 March, a company of nearly 40 boys – actors, musicians and production crew – spanning all year groups, will be presenting a new production of Twelfth Night. It is of course one of Shakespeare’s best-known comedies, and his most musical play, so Head of Academic Music William Church’s original score, which ranges from madrigal to modern folk, via references to Harrow Songs, will be a very special feature. Original compositions by boys will be performed from the stage, and Head of Painting Simon Page has been sketching in rehearsals as artist-in-residence.
Proceeds from ticket sales will go towards the creation of an annual project in which Harrow boys work with students from our partner-maintained schools on the Globe’s stage, and with tuition from Globe actors. We are naming this new project after Ronnie Watkins’ great successor, another former beak called Jeremy Lemmon, who directed the 1994 production.
Homepage image: Detail of a watercolour by Bea Holloway, formerly an art teacher at Orley Farm prep school, depicting a rehearsal of The Taming of the Shrew in the half-built Globe, with St Paul’s visible through the unfinished walls, boys struggling into their costumes, make-up ladies and others watching from the side, and - in the foreground - a young Benedict Cumberbatch (The Park 19903) studying his script.