Constructed mainly of oak, the building sits alongside the
established open-air Globe theater on the south bank of the
Thames — but it offers a very different experience by
replicating an indoor playhouse of the early 17th century.
While the Globe's thatched amphitheater is breezy and holds more
than 1,500 people, the new Sam Wanamaker Playhouse — named after
the American actor and director who came up with the idea for
both venues — is intimate, with just 340 seats.
Stepping inside is like entering an antique marquetry box, with
the flickering candlelight illuminating woodwork and a painted
ceiling that make a fine setting for the inward-looking
psychological dramas of the Jacobean period.
In many ways the small indoor space is an "anti-Globe,"
according to artistic director Dominic Dromgoole, whose
production of John Webster's dark tragedy "The Duchess of Malfi"
opened there on January 9.
Modeled on drawings that fell out of an old book in the library
at Worcester College, Oxford, in the 1960s, the new playhouse
offers a wintertime option for Dromgoole and his team.
The second venue builds on the outdoor success of the Globe,
which has been putting on shows since 1997 and had its first
transfer to Broadway in November. Given the British weather, the
Globe can only operate from April to October,
The sketches that form the basis for the 7.5 million pounds
($12.4 million) project are the earliest surviving evidence of
what an indoor Jacobean theater would have looked like, although
the final building is not a copy of any particular historical
The idea of heading inside in the winter months would have been
very familiar to William Shakespeare and his peers — as would
the choice of play.
SKULL BENEATH THE SKIN
"The Duchess of Malfi" was first performed by the King's Men
acting company to which Shakespeare belonged at a similar indoor
theater across the river at Blackfriars in 1613 or 1614.
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It is a tale of corruption, murder and madness that
exposes the dark side of human nature, prompting the poet T.S. Eliot
famously to describe Webster as a dramatist who "saw the skull
beneath the skin".
With a macabre scene of waxwork corpses and a
grave-digging semi-werewolf duke, Webster piles on a surreal horror
that gains a claustrophobic immediacy in the small candle-lit
The show burns through dozens of beeswax candles to illuminate the
action, some in candelabras and others held by the actors, although
a certain amount of artificial electric light does leak in through
internal windows in some scenes.
The effect is unique, with the candlelight reflecting off the
actors' white neck ruffs and glittering from the golden dress worn
by Gemma Arterton — a former Bond girl in the movie "Quantum of
Solace" — who plays the doomed duchess.
The play will have its press night on January 15 but the show, which
also includes period music, is already getting rave write-ups on
Twitter from those who have seen it, with visitors describing the
setting as "gorgeous" and "amazing".
Dromgoole is preparing next to present other works from more of
Shakespeare's contemporaries — including Francis Beaumont and John
Marston — as well as an opera by Francesco Cavalli and several
Naked flames will be centre-stage in all these shows, a fact that
has required careful liaison with health and safety officers — especially as the original Globe theater burned down 400 years ago
when its thatch caught fire during a performance of Shakespeare's
($1 = 0.6066 British pounds)
(Editing by Michael Roddy and Andrew
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