Comus: John Milton (1634)

Milton: Comus

★★★

A Masque in Honour of Chastity

(Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, 26 October 2016)

Comus is the first of several productions I’ll be seeing at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse this season and it proved to be a curious kettle of fish. It was commissioned from John Milton by the Earl of Bridgewater, who had just been appointed Lord President of Wales, and was performed on Michelmas 1634 at the Earl’s new seat of Ludlow Castle. The three main roles of the Lady and her two Brothers were performed by the Earl’s own children, and the masque trumpeted the family’s honour, virtue and chastity. Of course, such trumpeting only hints that there was something to hide, and this production cleverly puts Comus back into context. But even the excellent team at the Globe can’t overcome the issues of the text, and Comus never quite stops feeling like a historical curiosity.

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Orpheus: Luigi Rossi (1647)

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★★★★

(Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, in collaboration with the Royal Opera, 8 November 2015)

Hot on the heels of Ormindo comes another partnership between the Globe and Covent Garden, which offers another treat of early Baroque opera in the unique ambiance of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. This time it’s Orpheus, directed from the gallery by Christian Curnyn with a select force of musicians from Early Opera.

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All the Angels: Handel and the First Messiah: Nick Drake

All the Angels: Handel and the First Messiah

★★★

(Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, directed by Jonathan Munby, 3 July 2015)

The Globe’s increasing involvement with early music has been one of the unforeseen consequences (for me) of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. As I’ve said before, its intimate atmosphere and warm acoustics have encouraged some truly exciting developments over in Southwark. There’s the exciting collaboration with the Royal Opera House to produce lesser-known early Baroque operas; there are concerts; and, least foreseen of all, new plays which explore the history of music. Last season we had Farinelli and the King, which will transfer to the West End this autumn and which has done so much to introduce a general audience to countertenors (and hopefully, for Iestyn Davies’s sake, to the difference between a countertenor and a castrato).

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Research in Action: Performing Gender on the Indoor Stage

Performing Gender: Shakespeare's Globe

(Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, 7 May 2015)

We all know that in Shakespeare’s day women weren’t allowed on the stage. Recently several productions have tried to recreate the flavour of those original performances: Mark Rylance’s Twelfth Night and Richard III productions come to mind. But even these don’t give an accurate flavour of what Elizabethan and Jacobean audiences would have seen. Female roles were played by young boys aged between 12 and 22 years old, highly skilled actors who would specialise in playing women until at a certain stage they were no longer able to convince with the illusion (many ended up transitioning across the gender divide and took on male roles within the company).

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Ormindo: Francesco Cavalli (1644)

Cavalli: Ormindo

★★★★★

(Royal Opera House at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, February-March 2015)

In writing about Cavalli’s Ormindo, it’s hard not to feel that everything has already been said. (But I’m going to say it again anyway.) This production made its immensely successful debut in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse last year, blending the musical expertise of the Royal Opera House with the theatrical immediacy of the Globe. It is, quite simply, a match made in heaven: Cavalli’s operas, which predate the swaggering show-off arias of the high Baroque, feel like exuberant plays that just happen to be set to music. Naturally there’s nowhere in London more skilled at bringing such things to life than the Globe.

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The Knight of the Burning Pestle: Francis Beaumont

The Knight of the Burning Pestle: Francis Beaumont (1607)

★★★★½

(Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, 2 January 2015)

First of all, a very happy New Year to all of you! My first outing of 2015 was to the wooden galleries of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, to see Francis Beaumont’s exuberantly experimental play The Knight of the Burning Pestle. This was such a success last year that it’s been revived and it’s simply perfect for the lighthearted Christmas season. Anarchic, raucous and full of music, it calls for audience interaction, conjures up plays within plays within plays, and offers a strikingly postmodern comment on the act of theatrical performance. It reduced me to tears of laughter by the interval.

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Original Scores: Le Malade Imaginaire: Molière (1673)

The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

★★★

(Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse)

Last Monday I ventured away from my usual theatrical fare of blood-soaked Jacobean vengeance and tried something a little different. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment are performing some candlelit concerts in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse this season, based around the concept of ‘original scores’. They present incidental music which was composed for early theatrical performances, originally intended to accompany ballets or intermezzi. This music is almost always stripped out of modern productions, leaving us with the bare unadorned text and, perhaps, depriving us of some of the subtleties which the playwright originally intended.

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‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore: John Ford

'Tis Pity She's a Whore: John Ford

★★★½

(Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Shakespeare’s Globe, October-December 2014)

Say what you like about Baroque operas (or, indeed, George R.R. Martin), but nobody does dysfunctional families quite like the Jacobeans. The Globe’s winter season opens with John Ford’s play, written around 1630, which takes place in 17th-century Parma. Here the young scholar Giovanni is in torment. He desires his sister, the beautiful Annabella, but despite the advice of his former tutor, the Friar, he sees no way to cure his illicit passion. Annabella herself is being courted by three suitors: the swaggering Roman soldier Grimaldi; the nobleman Bergetto, who has the promise of a vast inheritance but not a brain in his head; and the handsome gentleman Soranzo, whose courteous manner masks a darker temper.

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The Duchess of Malfi: John Webster

The Duchess of Malfi: Webster

★★★★★

(Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Shakespeare’s Globe, until 16 February 2014)

I studied this at school and it has stuck in my mind ever since: indeed, it’s the kind of thing that’s hard to forget. The Duchess of Malfi was the historical Giovanna d’Aragona, traditionally – though no longer – thought to be the sitter in the gorgeous portrait by Giulio Romano in the Louvre. Widowed young, she falls in love with her overseer, the urbane but lowborn Antonio and marries him secretly. As the years pass, she has three children with him and savours the bliss of her married life, but their match remains a secret.

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