A temple of Shakespeare faces the end

Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in London

Holly Thomas is a writer and editor based in London. She tweets @HolstaT. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.

(CNN)The coronavirus has shuttered many beloved institutions, either directly because of the threat of disease or indirectly, in the economic devastation wreaked by the outbreak.

Holly Thomas
From museums to cafes, the Eiffel Tower to the Colosseum, so many of the things which gave life before the pandemic its color and richness have been temporarily -- or in some cases permanently -- closed. Such may be the case with The Globe, an almost identical replica of Shakespeare's original playhouse, which announced this week that due to a funding crisis, it may never be able to reopen.
    This would of course be a tragedy for its staff, the tourism industry, which will feel the economic ripple effects far beyond London, and lovers of experimental, diverse theater. It would also be a sad irony, since Shakespeare's Globe represents so many of the elements of life most missed during the coronavirus pandemic. It's jostling and visceral, and creates a unique sense of connection between the audience and actors alive together in the theater -- and also with those centuries ago.
      As the dust settles amid the damage of this pandemic, it would also prove a dismal loss for anyone who has come to treasure The Globe as one of the gems of London's landscape, and a window into its history.
      Alongside its imposing neighbor, the gigantic, steel-framed Tate Modern, and mirrored by the palatial St Paul's cathedral on the opposite side of the River Thames, The Globe theater looks small and almost fragile. Compared to much of the pop-up book of iconic architecture which lines the river -- from the gothic Palace of Westminster to the ancient Tower of London -- it is. But The Globe's presence on the tree-lined, lamppost-studded Southbank is a testament to determination across the centuries.
      Reopened in 1997 after a more than 300-year lapse since the Puritans demolished it in 1644, the current Globe building is new and unblemished. But its appearance and anatomy, even by British standards, are old-fashioned. The rounded, drum-like structure is made out of plaster and oak beams, and it is the only building in London to boast a thatched roof -- placing it in stark and beautiful contrast with the glassy Shard tower a few minutes' walk away, and the City Of London's skyscrapers just over the Millennium bridge. It's located just minutes' walk from the original Globe foundations -- and was built to look and feel as much like its ancestor as possible.
        The birth of the original Globe playhouse was aptly dramatic. It was pieced together from timber stolen -- or rescued, according to your allegiance -- from a theater in Shoreditch, in the twilight of Queen Elizabeth I's reign. Amid a lease dispute which may have seen the theater claimed by a landlord, its company of players -- The Lord Chamberlain's men, which Shakespeare had a financial stake in -- dismantled it beam-by-beam in secret, transporting it over the River Thames, and reconstructing it on the south bank as The Globe. It opened in 1599, the year Shakespeare is believed to have finished writing "Henry V."
        All Shakespeare's plays thereafter were written with The Globe theater in mind, so that then, as today, the performances would resonate best in that space. It worked brilliantly, and the playhouse and its business survived the bubonic plagues which ravaged London, shutting its doors in 1603 and 1606. The original structure burned down in 1613 after an explosion during a performance of Henry VIII, but it was rebuilt immediately, and reopened in 1614. Like medieval St Paul's, which was reconstructed at the turn of the 18th century after the Great Fire of London, then repaired again after being bombed during the Blitz, The Globe has reanimated and reinvented itself across the centuries.
        The way the modern Globe functions -- or did before the lockdown closed its doors -- deliberately emulates its 1599 and 1614 iterations. It's built stadium-like, with a little roofing around the walls but no ceiling covering the middle -- a challenge for the actors, who -- unlike in indoor theatres -- are always able to see the audience. This, plus the players' physical proximity to the public -- many of whom, the "groundlings," watch standing in the yard leaning against the stage -- encourages a level of public intimacy with strangers which is now impossible. A perfectly delivered line in the right spot is like hitting a snare -- it reverberates, gathering power in the drum-like space, and hits with all the more force for the closeness of the congregation to the speaker.
        As was the case in Shakespeare's time, when the bard himself was leading the charge, innovation and reinvention are celebrated at The Globe. Seasons examine themes like the MeToo movement, and the theater promotes -- and practices -- gender, race, and disability-blind casting. The company produces workshops, resources on subjects from same-sex intimacy in Shakespeare to original practices at The Globe, podcasts and music from The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, the 17th century-style jewel box theatre added next door in 2014. Like its Elizabethan predecessor, The Globe has become a community hub, taking on local apprentices and kickstarting careers in the arts that go far beyond acting.
          For all theaters -- and especially Shakespeare's -- elitist associations, there's little ceremony about attending a play at The Globe. As in Elizabethan times, ticket prices vary -- but start cheap, from about $6 in the standing yard. The modern experience is a little more sanitized in a literal sense -- though this also now feels relative -- but standing inside its walls, it's not difficult to imagine the 17th century yard floor covered in mud, the crusts of pies and cores of apples. It's just a small mental leap from there to an early modern city which enjoyed bear baiting and public executions, some of which took place at the Tower Of London, accessible less than a mile up the river via Traitor's Gate -- if you were one of the unfortunate condemned.
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          The ambition of updating and reimagining the most eminent plays in the English language in a setting which transports audiences across time was extraordinary to realize - and created an almost unique cross-section of art, tourism, and living history. The loss of every theatre, and the jobs and livelihoods which go with them is a tragedy. But losing The Globe wouldn't just be a casualty for art. It would mark the abandonment of one of London's most beloved, and long-lived inhabitants.