“The Duchess of Malfi” at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

2014 is off to a great start for lovers of the stage, as the late Sam Wanamaker’s visionary plan for an indoor theatre, next to Shakespeare’s Globe, is now open. Deservedly taking Wanamaker’s name, this reimagining of a Jacobean indoor theatre is an exciting opportunity to see plays of the period in an authentic context.

So what’s it like? In a word: fascinating. The tiny space is instantly appealing. Candlelit, it is full of charm and even smells wonderful. The acoustics are shockingly good; this will surely be its major contribution to our understanding of Renaissance theatre. That it’s lit so differently to the theatres we are used to, and you can hear a pin drop, makes for a very different interaction between the audience and the play – one that, for me anyway, felt heightened and cerebral. It is also, it has to be admitted, rather uncomfortable. Bench seating is never luxurious and the theatre is crowded, potentially hot, with some awful sightlines. Go, but avoid the restricted view seats.

The first production is John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi. The gore filled revenge story unexpectedly benefits from being staged in this space. It all seems much quieter than we are used to. Much more about listening to the horrors inflicted on a widowed Duchess who dares to marry again than seeing blood splattered everywhere. First directorial honours go to the Globe’s boss Dominic Dromgoole, who does a superb job embracing the new theatre. The famous scene where the Duchess is visited in the dark, which here really is pitch black, is thrilling.

Inevitably there’s the sense of a company still finding its feet. Gemma Arterton’s performance as the Duchess is understated and seems spot on as a result. But her wicked brothers, played by David Dawson and James Garnon, who oppose her marriage and then torture her when they discover it, seem overplayed as the play progresses.

Webster’s exuberant language often raises a smile nowadays but playing it for laughs (a common way of dealing with his wild metaphors) seems a missed opportunity here. Duke Ferdinand’s insanity certainly isn’t supposed to be funny nor, I am sure, are the mad people sent to live with the Duchess as part of her punishment. Just possibly, this is the place to play the text straight.

But these reservations only serve to support what is so exciting about this new old theatre. The chances it offers to explore well-known plays, and hopefully soon to rediscover lost works, make the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse brim with potential. London has a new star venue.

Until 16 February 2014

www.shakespearesglobe.com

Written 17 January 2014 for The London Magazine

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