British

The £5 Way to Experience London's Theater Scene

Sometimes it pays to be last-minute.

March 11, 2019

A long time ago, in what feels like another life, I had the amazing chance to study Early Modern English Literature in the United Kingdom—more specifically, I studied Shakespeare and Milton's work in the heart of London. My grad school program gave me access to some of the brightest scholars in the academic community, the finest research libraries, and an array of fascinating cultural events (followed by an array of equally fascinating cheeses and canapés). It also gave me a good amount of free time to explore my surroundings (in the UK, seminars only occupy about four hours a week).

However, with my, ahem, bohemian grad school-student earnings, I had to get creative with my exploration.

Oftentimes, this meant spending full days at one of London's many free museums, strolls around Victoria Park (near where I lived in East London), and frequent trips to Borough Market, where I'd mostly window-shop and treat myself to the occasional grilled cheese (this didn't happen as often as I'd have liked). It also meant sipping on inexpensive cappuccinos at the university library's café a lot—after all, we were students.

Of all the affordable things London had to offer, though, my favorite was somehow the most unexpected: watching Shakespeare's plays come to life onstage, week after week, with a rotation of star-studded, award-winning casts (Stephen Frye, Mark Rylance, you name it). And it was just £5. Every. Single. Time. Here's how:

Shakespeare's Globe, located in London's South Bank district, is a reconstruction of the historic playhouse where the British icon's works were staged during the Elizabethan period (currently, it stands just 100 yards from its original late-1500s site). Per the Globe's website, its current program of work "harnesses the power of performance, cultivates intellectual curiosity, and excites learning, to make Shakespeare accessible for all." Yep, even for grad students like me. Standing-only tickets for the theater's yard, closest to the stage, cost just £5 (when you watch from there, you're called a "groundling," but you also have the best "seats" in the house). And though you're on your feet for hours, these tickets usually sell out fast (in a matter of days or weeks, depending on the show).

Fortunately, there's a solution to this, and it's one I availed of pretty often: For each sold-out performance, patrons who are unable to make that evening's show have the option to return the tickets for attempted resale. (This is purely altruistic, because the Globe famously doesn't offer refunds.) Once the day's inventory is determined, the theater then begins selling these "returns" about two hours before the day's performance begins—first-come, first-serve, until they run out.

With a library book in hand, a classmate or two at my side, and nothing but time, I braved many a line. I also saw world-class performances of The Taming of the Shrew, Twelfth Night, Othello, and many more.

So for less than the price of a grilled cheese (£6, in case you're curious), I experienced the best of London's theater scene. And even though I'm no longer on my grad-school budget (and I'm better about buying tickets on time), I'll never watch a play at the Globe from any other section.

What's your favorite way to spend an evening in London? Tell us in the comments below!

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