Thursday, 30 January 2014

Jacobean Theatre

SIXTEEN years after the opening of Shakespeare's Globe, the vision of its founder Sam Wanamaker for an indoor theatre next door has been realised. I joined a small group to get a sneak preview.

THEY say great things come in small packages and that’s certainly the case with the new indoor Jacobean Theatre which has finally opened its doors.
Named after the man whose vision drove the project forward, the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is quite simply exquisite - a veritable box of delights.
Compact and bijou, seating only 340 on carpeted benches, and with an interior built entirely of oak, it boasts a wealth of features.
Beautiful painted ceilings, carvings, gildings, double doors in the centre of the stage, window shutters, three levels of bench style seating, a musician’s gallery, and a delicious smell of beeswax that wafts through the air are just a few of its many charms.
Any technology, including the ingenious air cooling system, is hidden from view, and the Sam Wanamaker crest is also displayed proudly above the small stage.
It is nestled next to its bigger sibling, the thatched amphitheatre that is Shakespeare's Globe, on the South Bank.
But while the Globe is big, bright, light, and airy, the new theatre is positively tiny in comparison making it extremely intimate.
In fact from the seats on the sides at stage level, the most expensive and where traditionally the rich would go to be seen, you can almost reach out and touch the actors as they swish about the stage.
But it's real beauty lies in the fact it is lit entirely by candlelight both with candles in sconces on the walls and within candelabras suspended from the ceiling.
It is a glorious sight and made possible thanks to a candle expert who snuffed out any anxieties from the health and safety police about having real, lit candles in such a space.
The project has been driven by the desire to fulfil Sam Wanamaker's dream for two theatres on the site and its arrival is a glorious triumph for all involved, creating a real buzz on the South Bank, and all paid for without any public money.
Artistic director Dominic Dromgoole positively fizzes with excitement as he shows off the new space.
"Isn't it amazing," he beams when he welcomes us all in. Open mouthed and momentarily lost for words, the small group I'm with nods in agreement.
"It feels like the beginning of something," he smiles. "We will find out more about it and how we can best use the space as we go along but there is so much potential here."
The new venue is an archetype rather than a replica of a Jacobean theatre and its design is based on the Worcester College drawings which are the earliest known architectural designs for an indoor English theatre.
"Sam always wanted and intended there should be an indoor theatre on the site and the shell was created when we started building the main Globe," says chief executive Neil Constable.
"One of the biggest challenges we faced was that there are no surviving Jacobean Theatres in the country. We had to do a tremendous amount of painstaking research so every detail in terms of the materials, methods and decorative aesthetics, is picked out from an appropriate reference."
The new playhouse offers the opportunity to present plays throughout the year, to expand the repertoire of work, to investigate indoor theatre practice and to stage Jacobean plays in their intended atmosphere.
And opening with John Webster's Duchess of Malfi was a deliberate move.
"Shakespeare would have been wrong," says Dominic. "It had to be something dark, mysterious and macabre and Webster’s Malfi fits the bill.
"Some plays don’t lend themselves to this space as it’s too small. A history play would be tough - Henry V would be very peculiar in here. The sheer sense of cinemascope story telling would be odd.
"This stage demands a lightness and speed of playing which is very different from any other place.
"Theatre is about hearing and experiencing a play and being lost in the environment and you can certainly do that here."
And although he won’t rule out Shakespeare he wants to let the Playhouse bed down for a couple of years first.
"We will do Shakespeare but not yet," he says. "It is important to see what we can do here first. We are learning a massive amount – even in the first couple of weeks since we opened we’ve seen how the space can work and evolve."
And Dominic has ambitious plans for it with a variety of shows from traditional theatre to music, opera, working with a children's theatre company and a incorporating trap doors both on and above the stage.
He is also hoping to take a show from the Globe and transport it to the Playhouse for one performance, just "to see what it's like".
"Pre conceived ideas don't work here," he smiles. "There is a degree of improv, playfulness and wit involved.
"It's still an experiment," he adds. "There is a lot of scope to do things here we can’t do at the Globe and we will be learning all the time.
"It’s an amazing journey we are now on.”
And as we leave he says eyes twinkling, “It is extraordinary and yes I think Sam Wanamaker would be very pleased."

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