There is a new reason to visit London. It is wooden, but lively. Old, but new. Shadowy, but luminous. The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is a reconstruction of what an indoor theater might have looked and felt like around 1600, when Shakespeare was 36 and at the height of his career as an actor, theatrical entrepreneur, and dramatist.
Shakespeare had, in 1599, been one of the founders of a successful outdoor theater on the south bank of the Thames. Called the Globe, it was an O-shaped wooden structure where, in summer, crowds gathered to watch the first performances of Julius Caesar, Hamlet, and Othello. In 1997, the Globe was lovingly re-created, and audiences for the last two decades have enjoyed open-air performances there, authentic in every detail except for the flight overhead of an occasional airplane during a soliloquy.
But what to do in winter? Shake-speare’s company would transfer to a theater in Blackfriars. The Globe Trust had long intended to re-create a Jacobean indoor theater where actors all year round could explore the conditions of 17th-century performance. Now that ambition has been realized in a 340-seat, horseshoe-shaped playhouse, painted with allegorical figures and lit entirely by candles.
It is magical. As you enter, the warm smell of beeswax and wood puts you in mind of a hive. And indeed, the theater is abuzz. The intimacy of the space, its honey-colored oak pillars, blazing candelabras, and ceiling painted with golden angels intensify your sense of occupying a beautiful box that could erupt at any moment with laughter, music, and dance. Whether you are in one of the two galleries or in the ground-level pit, you are so close to the stage that you could almost touch the actors. Certainly a well-aimed apple would hit its target. You are also very close to your fellow audience members, whom you can see above and below you, particularly those in the “lords’ boxes” abutting the stage. These are the premier seats: Jacobean theatergoers paid for their own visibility.
This continuity between the audience and the stage creates a very different experience from that in a conventional theater, where there is a “moat” between performers and spectators. Here, you are always looking in the social mirror, seeing the response to the play as well as the action. And it draws you in, making you aware that at any time the actors could leap the bleachers and a prop—or a character—could jump into your lap.
In the knockabout comedy that I saw, The Knight of the Burning Pestle (1607), this is exactly what happened. The lack of a firm boundary between actors and audience is key to the plot. Players appear and begin to stage The London Merchant, a play about a poor apprentice thwarted in his love for his mean master’s daughter. But suddenly, there is a ruckus in the pit: A swankily dressed, nouveau-riche grocer and his wife—he in a feathered velvet cap and breeches, she in a bodice whose padded shoulders bristle with crimson carnations—are voicing their displeasure. They want to see something else: a knight in shining armor. In fact, they want their own apprentice, Rafe, to play the knight—a kind of Sir Grocer, rescuing fair maidens from the calamity of finding themselves without essential ingredients.
Showering money on the cast like salt, the wannabe producers get their way, and soon we are watching two equally nonsensical, competing dramas whose plots never quite join up. When Rafe is nervously questing through Waltham Forest (a suburb of London) on a pantomime horse whose clip-clop is ostentatiously fake, we know we’ve reached the territory of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. This is absurdist comedy of the kind the British have always loved. There is a riotous fight with a barber-giant; a chase that explodes through the audience and all the way along the back of the theater, with characters being pushed in through the windows. There is a gratuitous dance around the maypole, a daring descent from the roof by rope, and a death scene that is as hilarious as it is unconvincing.
Francis Beaumont, the author, enjoyed sending up stage conventions. All the upper-class characters speak badly rhymed verse while the lower-class characters speak prose. And there are scenes that look very like a spoof of Romeo and Juliet as well as chivalric romance. But what is most “modern” about this piece is the freedom with which it “breaks the fourth wall,” acknowledging the audience and making the nub of the comedy the viewers’ habit of noisily eating licorice, chatting during the performance, and wishing for improbable, epic action.
Indeed, watching this play made me reconsider our assumption that self-referential drama is a postmodern phenomenon. The Knight of the Burning Pestle is the original satire on pay-per-view culture. But it also celebrates the therapeutic value of laughter. As Master Merrythought sings, extolling the pleasures of drinking and revelling all day long: Hey, ho, ’tis nought but mirth / That keeps the body from the earth!
Bodies and earth featured horribly in another production in the debut season at the Sam Wanamaker: Webster’s twisted psychodrama The Duchess of Malfi (ca. 1612). This is a claustrophobic tragedy of gathering menace, as the pregnant duchess (played affectingly by Gemma Arterton) is tormented by brothers who are determined to drive her mad and strangle her.
Her offense is one against caste. Following the duke’s death, she has contracted a secret marriage to one of her servants. Her brothers, driven by incestuous jealousy and avarice, will not permit her to live and breed: The psychological and actual violence they employ against her are equal to any grotesquerie Bret Easton Ellis or Quentin Tarantino could invent.
Candles were used in this production to great dramatic effect, to create shadows and to define the space. The 7 candelabra, each of which holds 12 candles, were raised for outdoor scenes and lowered to make a “ceiling” in indoor scenes.
At the start, the windows to the back of the playhouse were open, admitting natural light; but as the action became darker, the theater became more crepuscular, until, in the second half, the audience was briefly pitched into complete blackness, with not even an exit light.
I have seen this play before, across the expanse of modern theaters, where the events seemed literally farfetched. But here the tightness of the space made them viscerally creepy.
Dominic Dromgoole, artistic director of the Globe, told me that the new space forces positive challenges on actors. “Wood makes you intelligent,” he explained. The resonance of the timber means that the theater walls bounce words back fast, multiplying the sound of a single drum into that of an advancing army.
Several people thought he had adapted the script of The Duchess of Malfi, modernizing the language. “I hadn’t,” he said.
It just seemed that way because the delivery was new. You can’t bring a pre-prepared performance to this theater. It won’t work. You have to listen, to be limber, to pitch lines carefully.
Clumsy actors also need not apply. There are no wings in this theater. The beautiful black and gold paneling at the back of the stage—like that of a grand banquet hall—conceals a tiny candlelit corridor where props are kept and actors can “tire” (put on costume). There is no room for error.
I wondered how the Globe had won permission to play by candlelight. The answer is that they had to do extensive homework. They tried over 80 different kinds of candle before finding one that melted slowly and, if it fell, tended to go out. They constructed a ceiling, painted with the goddess Luna, that opens at the flick of a switch to allow firefighters in and devised an evacuation plan that takes only four minutes to complete.
Yet these were only a few of the difficulties that the architects faced during a design process that sometimes resembled a wild goose chase. There are no extant Jacobean indoor theaters in Britain to copy, so the original plan was to use a theater design that (legend has it) fell out of a book of Inigo Jones’s work in the Worcester College, Oxford, library. The drawings showed many elements that were known to have been part of Shakespeare’s Blackfriars Theatre, and for a long time, scholars believed that Jones had produced them in the early 1600s. Later researchers, however, cast doubt on this view, re-attributing the drawings to Jones’s protégé, John Webb, in the 1660s.
When the Globe’s architects looked at the drawings, they realized, moreover, that certain aspects of the design were simply impossible; this was a theater that was never and could never have been built. So they faced a difficult choice: abandon the drawings altogether and start fresh, or use the drawings as an imaginative basis for what would be an architectural mélange—a mixture of elements of different Jacobean buildings, united to make something faithful to what we know of 17th-century theaters, but not a reconstruction.
They went ahead with the latter. And history will approve their decision. For in the new theater, as Dromgoole says, “the light is alive.” Even when it is empty, it is beautiful.
Inevitably, there are small flies in the ointment. In the outdoor Globe, standing tickets (still only £5 each) require stamina but also reward it: You get the best view. The standing tickets in the upper balcony at the Wanamaker are not for the fainthearted, or short-limbed: When two actors converse at the wrong side of the stage, they disappear. One of the features of a pillared Jacobean theater is that the sightlines are occasionally blocked from any position. (My advice would be to sit in the lower gallery, or the pit, and to favor the seats at the back, since they allow you to rest your own back against the wall.)
But do go. This theater is an experiment that promises to shed new and fascinating light on how 17th-century plays and operas worked in practice. Eventually, it will also showcase new writing. And it can accommodate very diverse approaches: The last production I saw there was a one-woman show in which the veteran actress Eileen Atkins played Britain’s greatest 19th-century theatrical star, Ellen Terry, who delivered lectures on Shakespeare’s women and illustrated her comments by “becoming” Lady Macbeth, Rosalind, and Ophelia.
This show was a masterclass in the art of acting: Atkins not only played Terry—which she did with sharp wit and insight into the frustrations of a Victorian intellectual often upstaged by male impresarios—but inhabited at least 10 different Shakespeare heroines, giving each a distinct voice and character. She performed the final dialogue between Cordelia and King Lear, playing both parts, so movingly that several people in the audience around me were in tears.
An actor’s voice is a delicate instrument. And in this small playhouse built of wood, it becomes evident that the theater itself is an instrument of incredible fineness, like a harpsichord. Actors who play in it will also be playing it, bringing out new sounds from old scripts, finding beats and colors and cadences whose music resonates long after the original notes have faded.
Sara Lodge, a senior lecturer in English at the University of St Andrews, is the author of Thomas Hood and Nineteenth-Century Poetry: Work, Play, and Politics.