The Magazine

Murder by Candlelight

The new indoor theater at Shakespeare’s Globe

Jun 30, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 40 • By SARA LODGE
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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.

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