Ten Reasons to get excited about The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe

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Inigo Jones TheatreIn January of 2014, Shakespeare’s Globe will be moving indoors. The much anticipated Sam Wanamaker Playhouse will open with a season of early modern plays. But why should anyone be interested in this new theatre when the great Globe itself has been the main attraction of the Bankside complex for the last 15 years?

1. Two Playhouses both alike in dignity. First of all, this theatre will complete the mission of Sam Wanamaker, who like Shakespeare and his company, always had a ‘two playhouse-plan’. How can we really know Shakespeare if we don’t engage with the poetic and material traces of his time indoors?

2. 17th century Drawings. The auditorium and layout of the new playhouse are based on the extraordinary Worcester College Drawings, penned by John Webb (a protege of Inigo Jones) in the mid-seventeenth century (See figure). These are the earliest drawings of an English theatre. It is likely that scholars may never discover what theatre is represented in these drawings, and it is even likelier that it was never built, but what we can be sure of is that they point to an architectural space that resembles Shakespeare’s own Blackfriars Theatre: the pit, galleries, three door tiring house facade and audience in boxes on the stage itself are all features we know the Blackfriars was equipped with.

3. Paint. This space will present a decorative aesthetic like no other theatre in London and perhaps the world. Researched to the finest detail, the theatre will be painted and decorated in the Jacobean fashion, using a colour palette available in the 1600s (shades of green, blue and carnation), applied decoration, carvings and gilding.

4. Candles, candles, candles. Working closely with the fire authorities in London, Shakespeare’s Globe has made a concerted effort to ensure that all early modern plays performed there will be lit by candles. Using the expertise on the Globe’s Architecture Research Group, specifically Professor Martin White, Shakespeare’s Globe conducted experiments with candles, Jacobean plays, costume and cosmetics to assess the effects of this unique lighting condition upon the plays in performance. Beeswax burns longer and creates a warm, pleasant and dazzling glow through which to view these masterful Jacobean plays- what fascinating discoveries will we make when we see a five-act play lit with candles?

5. Intimacy. Imagine a theatre that seats only 340, with audience in the pit, two tiers of galleries, in boxes on both sides of the stage, and in the upper stage level seating. Perhaps even, we will experiment with audience members on stools dotted around the stage. Imagine too, a play like The Winter’s Tale, specifically, the mesmerising moment when Leontes comes face to face with his guilt as he gazes painfully into the eyes of a statue of his wife, stunningly lit with candles. We are not only intimate with each other as audience in this space; we are not only intimate with the actors, but we gain an intimacy with the characters too, characters whose eyes we can see into up close, whose tears we can trace and whose movements, when subtle, are just visible. Hermione coming to life produces fear and wonder in Leontes, pity and ecstasy in us, who will be the closest anybody has been for 400 years to the psychological intensity of this reconciliation.

6. Oak. The theatre itself is being constructed by Master Craftsman and his team at McCurdy & Co, Peter McCurdy. The same hands that framed the Globe, are building the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. Sawing, turning, carving, joining, McCurdy will provide the same care, diligence and historic knowledge that informed the reconstruction of the Globe Theatre. A combination of sturdy oak and delicate soft woods will comprise the interior structure of the indoor venue, including the tiring house wall and the stage itself where Shakespeare’s Globe actors will for years to come produce the ‘wooden dialogue’ Achilles was reported to have done in Troilus and Cressida.

7. Music. Scholars often talk about Shakespeare’s theatres as auditory spaces, places where you go to ‘hear a play’. While they are also highly visual spaces as well, there is a great truth in the idea of this indoor theatre as an auditory space. The Blackfriars repertory is full of music, and it is already common knowledge that Shakespeare’s plays became increasingly musical once the King’s Men acquired the indoor Playhouse across the river from the Globe. Research into music practice in the indoor theatres has helped to shape the size and use of the musicians’ gallery. Musicians will find a natural home in this space, where concerts of music and operas from all eras will be staged.

8. Voices. If you read the plays written for the indoor theatres of the seventeenth century, what becomes clear is the prominence of the human voice. Song and poetic speech are two recurring features of the indoor repertory. All of the professional boy companies performed in indoor spaces- their unique voices, reported by contemporaries to have been mellifluous and pleasurable to hear, will have piped and squeaked loudly enough to have threatened the adult companies causing the infamous War of the theatres. Indoor plays written by Shakespeare and his contemporaries showcase the voice in a way that will challenge our own expectations about what these speeches would have sounded like.

9. Special Effects. ‘A tempestuous noise of Thunder and Lightning Heard’ so goes the opening stage directions of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Perhaps it was performed in October of 1611 along with The Winter’s Tale and therefore would have been played in Shakespeare’s indoor theatre before making its way across the river to the Globe. Shakespeare and his contemporaries liked to create wonder and provoke amazement in their audiences, and they did so with special effects, such as a thunder run and fireworks. They used cosmetics to create the illusion of death, life or femininity; sound effects, such as strange noises from beneath the stage, or unseen music- ‘this isle is full of noises’ – were prominent too. In the indoor theatre plays there are many references to characters ‘rising’ or ‘sinking’ up on to or beneath the stage, suggesting not only a trap door, but perhaps some technological innovation in the trap, such as a lift. The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse will be equipped, as Shakespeare’s indoor theatre was, with the ability to experiment with these different and wide ranging effects.

10. Early modern drama. If we want to know Shakespeare, we need to know his fellow playwrights. Hands made out of wax, exhumations, corpse kissing, poisoned bibles, poisoned helmets, poisoned skulls, hearts on daggers, incest, adultery, con-artistry, conniving women against women, a parade of madmen and fools- these are just a few of the moments, props, and features that might appear on the indoor stage. The world of Shakespeare’s contemporaries is twisted, dark, strange, macabre, perverted, alienating and odd, but at the same time, wonderful and hilarious, and it is a world Shakespeare made it his business to immerse himself in too.

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Author:Farah Karim-Cooper

Dr Farah Karim-Cooper oversees the higher education provision in Globe Education and leads research and scholarship at Shakespeare’s Globe. She is Visiting Research Fellow, King’s College London and directs the Globe component of the King’s/ Globe joint MA in Shakespeare Studies. At the Globe, she is Chair of the Architecture Research Group and is leading on the research into the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, the new indoor Jacobean theatre. In addition to reviewing plays and books in critical journals and publishing articles and essays on Shakespeare and his contemporaries, Farah’s major publications include Cosmetics in Shakespearean and Renaissance Drama (Edinburgh University Press, 2006, paperback edn 2012) Shakespeare’s Globe: A Theatrical Experiment, (Cambridge University Press, 2008) co-edited with Christie Carson; Shakespeare’s Theatres and the Effects of Performance (Arden/Bloomsbury 2013); Moving Shakespeare Indoors, co-edited with Andrew J. Gurr (Cambridge University Press, 2014).

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