The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Shakespeare's Globe

I can’t resist saying a few words about the Globe’s brand new indoor Jacobean theatre, which has only just opened. It aims to provide a home for the company during the winter months and its name honours the American entrepreneur, father of the actress Zoe Wanamaker, who began the project to rebuild the Globe.

While a summer trip to the Globe offers a vivacious outdoor performance, with groundlings clustered around the stage and lashings of broad comedy, a winter visit to the Playhouse offers a more exclusive experience: a peek into the courtly theatres of the early 17th century. I had a foretaste of this kind of staging in the performances of Richard III and Twelfth Night which I saw early last year, but even they couldn’t prepare me for this experience. The Playhouse is tiny by comparison, with only 300 seats. It’s based on 17th-century architectural designs from the archives of Worcester College, Oxford, and it all feels thrillingly authentic.

There is no electric light. Seven chandeliers, each with eight branches, are fitted with beeswax candles, which are lit as the play begins. They illuminate the stage, hanging just above the actors’ heads, midway between the boards and the upper gallery (where I sat yesterday). If you sit in that gallery, you watch the action through a sea of candlelight. Then there are pairs of candles fitted into metal sconces, whose high backs catch and reflect the light; and the actors frequently come on carrying candlesticks or candelabra.

Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

The new playhouse under construction, 2013

In twilight scenes, the chandeliers are hoisted right up into the ceiling to dim the light; and at one point in The Duchess of Malfi, they were extinguished altogether as Ferdinand came in pitch darkness to visit his sister. The atmosphere here is the precise opposite of that in the Globe: there, it’s hard to pull off a convincing night scene; here everything has a shadowed side (fittingly).

One thing to note: cushions aren’t available for hire here, but be aware that the seats are only wooden benches covered with a thin strip of carpet; there is none of the comfort of modern theatres. But it all adds to the sensation. And there are compensations: a ceiling with painted stars, clouds and cherubs; the fresh new wood of the interior; the scent of the candles; and the period instruments played by the tiny costumed orchestra: a lute, viola da gamba, viola da braccio and harpsichord. The acoustics are splendid. The actors don’t need to project their voices or shout: a whisper or a breath is easily heard. It will be fantastic for the concerts and early operas that will also form a key part of the programme.

In short, the theatre is a triumph and, if you have any chance to visit it, you must grab it with both hands. Due to the limited number of seats, tickets are harder than ever to get hold of, but it’s a magical experience. It’s the perfect complement to a visit to the Globe during the summer months. And the decision to choose The Duchess of Malfi for the theatre’s inaugural production was a masterstroke. What play could be more appropriate?

Find out more about the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

A 180-degree view of the completed interior, January 2014

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