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.