The Sam Wanamaker Theatre

Sam Wanamaker Theatre

Sam Wanamaker Theatre

As Andy pointed out the other day, plans are well under way to create an early 17th century indoor London theatre on the same site as the Globe Theatre. The new theatre will be called The Sam Wanamaker Theatre and will open early in 2014.

Sam Wanamaker, the creative force behind the original Globe, always intended that there should also be an indoor theatre on the site. The space the theatre will take over has been in use as rehearsal rooms since the building was originally constructed 15 years ago. It will be based on plans for a theatre that, as far as we know, was never built. The theatre will cater for an audience of three hundred and fifty.  There will be two galleries, a pit for 60 people standing and some high cost seats close to the stage.

A Winter’s Tale

The indoor theatre will allow for productions in winter and in inclement weather.  This indoor theatre will be little more comfortable with a covered auditorium with a painted roof. It will be lit by huge numbers of candles in large candelabra.  With a wooden frame construction theatres of this type were real fire hazards and often burned down. In fact London theatres were notorious for burning down, which is why no original examples exist. Theatres went on being fire hazards long after Jacobean times:

When The Drury Lane Theatre was destroyed by fire in 1809 its owner Sheridan was at the House of Commons. He left and went to a little coffee house opposite his property and drank a bottle of port with his friend Barry, coolly remarking, “it was hard if a man could not drink a glass of wine by his own fire.” The Romance of London Theatres by Ronald Mayes

Of course this ‘modern’ old theatre has been designed  with the approval and help of the London Fire Brigade. It will meet all current safety standards and will  have a very effective sprinkler system.

Not Just for Shakespeare

The theatre will not just be for Shakespearian productions. The company hope to also use the theatre to stage a wider range of period plays. Apparently there has also been interest from early music groups and even opera companies. They may be able to use the indoor theatre when the Shakespearian productions are back in their summer home, outside.  It would be amazing to see Jacobean tragedies like Webster’s Duchess of Malfi or The White Devils, performed in an authentic candle lit setting or perhaps, an early opera or maybe an Elizabethan masque.

It is a logical extension of the work of the Globe I suppose but it does give me pause for thought. Part of the rational is to recreate the plays as they were once seen and I’m slightly uncomfortable with this. I know the Globe is a huge commercial success and does a great deal to promote and educate about the works of Shakespeare. These are not museum pieces, historical tableau to be viewed and dissected. To me they live or die on their capacity to function as drama. They should be universal, after all Shakespeare is, his work can stand any number of interpretations from Baz Lurman’s Romeo and Juliet to a Japanese Macbeth. The works of John Webster, Ben Johnston or even Aphra Ben can find a place on the modern stage not just as period pieces but as works in their own right, as the recent Old Vic production of the Duchess of Malfi showed.  After all we still perform the plays of the Oresteia, even though they are 1000s of years old.

I think the historians will find out a great deal about the way the plays worked by playing them in this way. It is a sort of experimental archaeology and valid in those terms but I would hate to think it might be used to produce definitive versions. Modern companies need to feel that like the earlier generations they can take these plays and make them their own, bringing our modern concerns and understanding to the play. The whole point of the historical cannon is that it can still be made fresh and is universal enough to speak to new audiences. Drama is not something you can pickle or preserve in aspic, it has to live and breath on the stage.
Using the pronunciation of the time would also make the plays more authentic but few productions of Shakespeare, even at the Globe attempt to deliver everything in a Black Country accent. Academic thinking has varied over time but many now think that is how most people spoke then.
By playing the works in an approximation of their original setting it might be easier to work out how they were spoken, especially, comic moments may be revealed. I think this was the case with some ‘jokes’ which have often been cut or hurried over in modern productions. Once in their original environment they suddenly ‘worked’ and people spontaneously laughed, even though they may not have quite understood the elaborate word play beloved of the the Elizabethans. It also became apparent that some plays had spaces where actors could insert bits of comic ‘business’ and that these too still worked. This had been known in theory of course but once the plays were done in a more original setting it was confirmed.

Theatre As Theme Park

the globe

The Globe Theatre and International Shakespeare Centre

Much can be learned by this sort of recreation but I suspect we might just be turning the theatre and these plays into historic theme parks. Whilst the Globe is very worthy I’m not sure the most ‘authentic’ productions actually do much for people’s perception of Shakespeare as lively, vibrant and relevant to their lives now. You see them streaming into and out of the Globe and the International Shakespeare Centre all the time and I can’t help but wonder what they make of it. I will admit that the latest  authentically all male production of Twelfth  Night with Stephen Fry has made a successful West End transfer. The show is supposed to be very entertaining but then Twelfth Night is actually so funny, even mediocre high school productions can get good laughs!
I am concerned that this new theatre, for all its worthy ambitions will become yet another tourist trap on the London circuit.  The new ‘old’ theatre may become a drama museum where hoards of teenagers are forced to attend ‘authentic’ productions of the plays they have to study for GCSE, A Level or EBac.

Curmudgeonly is such a harsh word!

On the other hand maybe I am just being curmudgeonly. After all I was dragged to see a production of Richard the Second at The Swan in Stratford Upon Avon in 1974 when I was doing my A levels, expecting to be bored senseless. I had very little interest in Shakespeare and felt slightly resentful at having to ‘do’ him again. During my O levels I’d seen a dire production of Macbeth at the Library Theatre in Manchester and it had somewhat put me off. At 18 I did my best to be hyper cool about the whole thing and to look down my nose at chocolate box, touristy Stratford but once in the Swan Theatre I was smitten.  That was John Barton’s famous RSC production with Ian Richardson and Richard Pasco alternating  the roles of Richard and Bollingbrook. Richardson was Richard the night we saw it.  Stunning! I still remember the huge semi-circular gold cloak and John of Gaunt with a bird-like beak mask and stilts! Not terribly authentic that production, but very impressive and showy. One reviewer at the time suggested there “…is nothing wrong with the RSC that could not be cured by a vow of poverty” but I was 18 and a sucker for all the bling! I loved it and suddenly the play made sense. (I got an A by the way). A good production of The Duchess of Malfi might have helped me get there less painfully too!

So I suppose what I’m saying is that seeing a good production is what matters. The theatre, sets and costumes are important but not the main thing. Maybe The Sam Wanamaker Theatre will provide scope for more high quality, interesting productions and more unwilling 18 year olds will be entranced. I do hope so.

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