From wooden O to U: inside the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse
By MICHAEL CAINES
Architects and theatrical designers must have this uncanny experience a lot: walking into a space that’s somehow both new and familiar, because it’s both freshly constructed and an echo of floorplans and elevations. Soon, however, all those scholars and admirers of seventeenth-century drama who have found themselves entranced by certain enigmatic drawings discovered several decades ago in the archives of Worcester College, Oxford – drawings once thought to be Inigo Jones’s designs for an early seventeenth-century theatre in London, the Cockpit or Phoenix near the modern Drury Lane – can enjoy something like that experience, courtesy of Shakespeare's Globe.
The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse opens to the public in January with a production of The Duchess of Malfi, with The Knight of the Burning Pestle and The Malcontent, to be played by a company of young actors. It’s the kind of programme that the adjacent open-air space could hardly accommodate nowadays, with its duty to fill the house at the height of every tourist-thronged summer. Exciting though this might be for lovers of pure Jacobean drama, however, it ought to be even more of a thrill for them to see these plays in this intimate, hybrid replica of a seventeenth-century theatre, lit by beeswax candles. It seats just shy of 350 people (including, I guess, that modern paradox of “standing seats”).
It was certainly a pleasure to see, as I saw last week, in the company of other members of the press, how near to completion London’s latest playhouse is. The shell has been there for a long time, but a year ago, after the Globe had returned to its original plans to create an indoor theatre to complement the outdoor one, the auditorium looked something like this:
Now, I can say, it’s in a state much closer to the computer vision of a “wooden U”, complete with musicians’ gallery, ornately limned ceiling and serried candlelabra:
The Jones attribution for the Worcester College drawings might no longer matter as much as it once seemed to (and here’s the persuasive work done by Gordon Higgott dating it to much later in the century and identifying the hand as that of John Webb), but pains have been taken, we visitors were assured by the Globe’s artistic director, Dominic Dromgoole, to ensure that there is a period precedent for every detail here, carved into oak by Peter McCurdy and his team, who built the Globe itself (and over on YouTube you can get a taste of how that process has worked). The effect is apparently quite distinct from that of walking into the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, Virginia, though at first glance they might appear to be similar.
The intimacy of the space, too, with the curving rows of seats in the pit seeming to divide their attention between the stage and their counterparts on the other side of a central aisle, and a stage that projects something like halfway into the whole auditorium space, holds out its own promise of the entertainment to come – and something very different from the open-air Globe’s fun with groundlings and sonic battles with the noise of passing air traffic. In fact, somebody told me, the company had already enjoyed experimenting with scenes, lighting and musical instruments; if anything, actors would have to learn how to resist, as well as give in to, the intimacy of the space. In the 1600s, Malfi was first performed indoors, at the Blackfriars, before moving outdoors to the Globe. Being able to walk around the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse as well as the Globe gives you a sense, if you hadn’t already imagined it clearly enough, of just how drastic a transformation that must have been. Does the play exist that could comfortably transfer from one stage to the other without being radically upset along the way?
Personally, I'd be curious to see much more of the old repertoire on this stage, including (although it’s probably not high on the Globe’s list of priorities) some pieces out of the Restoration stock (the Phoenix was still just about in business after 1660). Let's hope the opening season is a sign of things to come.