The Duchess of Malfi, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

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If there’s one thing a new theatre building is capable of doing, as I noted in a blog earlier this week, it’s to refocus our attention on the space in which performance takes place. We’re all too apt to comment on site only when it is accompanied with the word “specific”, ignoring the fact that every piece of theatre is inflected by its surroundings. In considering the first production at the Globe’s new indoor Jacobean theatre, therefore, I’m inevitably going to end up discussing the venue as much as – if not more than – the show. Here, I’m comforted and encouraged by Matt Trueman’s idea of theatre criticism as a team sport; you’ll doubtless be able to read better commentaries on the play and the performances elsewhere, allowing me to happily riff on architecture, candlelight and acoustics.

On stepping inside the new Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, the first thing you notice is the wood. From seats to stage to pillars, the whole place is fashioned from the stuff. Other than the beautifully painted ceiling, it’s mostly left bare, immediately drawing attention to the materials used. What is also striking upon entering the space is its intimacy. In stark contrast with the Globe’s 1,500 capacity, the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse has seats for just 340, all of which – right up to the top gallery – feel thrillingly close to the compact stage. Under the dim, shimmering illumination of candlelight, the shadowy auditorium is claustrophobic, sometimes almost oppressively so. The closeness is at once exciting and unsettling.

All of which makes John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi the perfect play to open this space. This is a play in which notions of dark and light, concealment and illumination, are central to both action and themes. It is a play in which closeness of all kinds recurs throughout the plot, and which features a series of enclosed spaces, from the locked chambers of the Duchess and Antonio’s secret marriage to the rooms where the Duchess is later imprisoned and tormented by her brothers. It is also known that The Duchess of Malfi was originally performed indoors, in the Blackfriars theatre on which the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is partially modelled, and was in all likelihood written for an indoor space. Watching it by the flickering light of candles, this makes perfect sense.

Intrigued as I was by the idea of theatre by candlelight, its effects are far more complex and enchanting than I could have anticipated. “Magical” is a word that seems to naturally leap to the lips of those watching, and it’s easy to see why. Candlelight is adjustable, allowing for far more controlled variation than the temperamental daylight that productions have to work with in the Globe, yet it still has an attractively unpredictable quality. Its unstable glow can throw odd shadows or create momentary illusions, making the Playhouse a gloomy palace of the imagination. There’s something dreamlike about the experience of spectatorship in this light, illuminating the dark passions and rich textures of Webster’s play far more effectively than an over-reaching barrage of sophisticated lighting effects.

It’s tempting to focus on appearances, but the acoustics of this space have just as much of an impact on the theatrical experience as all the candles. While the Globe can take on the character of a booming arena, instantly creating epic scale with the addition of heavy drum beats or clamorous trumpet calls, the aural landscape of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is far more delicate, fixing the ear’s attention on all its subtleties. This is in part to do with the enhanced intimacy – there is simply less space for the sound to reverberate around – but it is also an effect of the very fabric of this building. Not knowing a great deal about the workings of sound, it could be the shape of the space, the arrangement of the pillars, or simply all that wood, but whatever it is it creates a wonderfully ghostly soundscape for this production. When the voice of the dead Duchess is heard, echoing Antonio’s words from various positions around the auditorium, it’s easy to believe that these intonations emanate from some supernatural sphere.

So what of the production itself? I’ve touched on some of its effects, combined with those of the space, but it deserves a slightly more thorough assessment. If Dominic Dromgoole’s interpretation has an overall texture it is, in accord with its surroundings, dreamlike, descending increasingly into the nightmarish. In a light that can never really be described as bright and is often reduced to an ominous gloom, Webster’s more outlandish plot devices – the wax figures with which Ferdinand cruelly tricks his sister come to mind – take on the sinister edge that was perhaps originally intended. But this is also a production that is unafraid to highlight the more ridiculous aspects of the play. A grim humour suffuses the piece, while James Garnon’s Cardinal is deliciously, laughably evil, summoning snorts of mirth from the audience even as the corpses fall. Murder, it turns out, is often rather funny.

Gemma Arterton, meanwhile, makes a dignified and deeply feeling Duchess. There is a girlishly rapturous yet vulnerable quality to her doomed passion for Antonio, but when facing imprisonment she is still and stonily composed. The dark, grimy flipside of Arterton’s captivating protagonist is found in her twin brother Ferdinand, here rendered particularly repellent in the able – if sweaty – hands of David Dawson. A quick mention too must go to Alex Waldmann, who I last saw as Orlando in the RSC’s joyous As You Like It, and who here once again offers an earnest, convincing portrait of a man bowled over by love. But what’s really fascinating about watching these performances is their movement through the space, still feeling their way around this new theatrical dynamic, but with a tentative grace. Even the lighting of the lowered chandeliers – a necessary intrusion on the action – has a sort of choreography to it.

The other thing that strikes me is the sheer theatricality of Webster’s play in this context. The playwright’s wit can get forgotten amidst the gore and grotesquerie, but it is present and correct here, presented with a lightly knowing air. I find my attention particularly drawn to small comments in the text that refer to the framework of the theatre, while the simple mechanics of this stage cause performers to implicitly, unfussily acknowledge their doubled status as actor and character, comfortably delivering the potentially awkward asides. This self-awareness feels particularly pronounced in the case of Waldmann’s Antonio, who in the course of a couple of scene changes physically brushes up against the fate that awaits him, casting his eyes towards it with an interesting attitude of resignation.

What most excites scholars about the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, of course, is its identity as a sort of theatrical time machine. It is a space in which to rediscover plays like Webster’s in their original context – or at least as close to that original context as we’re likely to get. Theatremakers can experiment with the use of candlelight, the style of performance, the musical arrangements, all the while making notes against what we already know about Jacobean theatre. For anyone with even the slightest interest in history, this romantic notion of recapturing the past is undeniably appealing.

I’m fascinated to learn, however, that – unlike the Globe – the Playhouse was not built as a direct reconstruction of any one theatre. It is instead intended as representative of indoor Jacobean theatres in general, while at the same time paradoxically representing a fictional building, one that never historically existed. As well as offering the kind of flexibility that the Globe’s association with Shakespeare will never quite allow, this ambiguous identity makes the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse a theatre of the imagination in every possible sense, revealing as much about our contemporary conception of history as it does about the history it attempts to reanimate. It is itself a performance of the past. And what could be more magical than that?

If you fancy some more reading, the Guardian’s features on the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse by Andrew Dickson and Dominic Dromgoole are both well worth a look, while Dan Hutton’s excellent analysis of space in The Commitments is pretty essential.

Photo: Mark Douet

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