The arts are my passion: drama, music, opera, dance, sculpture, painting, art history, architecture, film, literature... old and new... national and international... and after a period living, writing & performing in Australia and Italy this passion has brought me back to London. 'Blog Julie Arts' is a spin-off after success with 'There's Always A Story' at blogjulie.com

Saturday, 18 January 2014

A new playhouse

I have been neglecting my arts blog while busy with other things and writing a new book, so it’s such a pleasure to start 2014 with a few words about London’s exciting new venue: The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe. 

Playhouse is just the word for it too… because its appealing wooden construction is as cosy as a tree-house and the potential for play is endless!

I was lucky enough to be there for the very first performance and the audience was wild with excitement.  The production of The Duchess of Malfi was very worthy of our enthusiasm, but a dimension of our energy came from delight at being introduced to a space which has been long talked about, imagined, researched and desired but which we were scarcely able to believe had managed in practice to be realised.  ‘Let the trumpet sound’ we wanted to call: this is an auspicious moment and everyone should know about it!   Instead we stamped our feet, whistled and clapped our hands for so many repeat curtain calls the cast must have been thinking “oh for goodness sake stop, we want to get off… it’s been a long week, we’re tired and need a drink”. 

Ironically, this was the noisiest it had been all night, because one of the beauties of this Jacobean performance space is its intimacy.  A trumpet is likely to be too loud.  The cubby-house theatre is big on ideas, potential and class, but extremely up close and personal.  A whistle could have the impact in this space that a trumpet might have in the big O next door.  You could hear a pin drop for most of the performance… so intimately drawn are you to each actor, each verse, each bar of musical accompaniment.  If the wardrobe missed a stitch you might have noticed it.  Not that I’m suggesting they did of course, for the preparation for this incarnation of John Webster’s work has been immaculate.  Only now, though, do I really understand what’s meant by ‘a dandy’… that is, the show-offs in elaborate dress who sat on the stage or up in the minstrel’s gallery so they could be seen in the 1600s as clearly as the actors.   A dandy to a Jacobean is basically a media slut with thicker stockings. 

Actually it was fascinating to me that the costumes seized so much of my attention, for this theatre is lit only by candlelight and I expected it to be fairly dark.  However a few things combine to bring not just the dress but the movement of the actor in the costume into striking focus – and that is the cleanness and simplicity of the wooden frame, the accessibility and closeness of the thrust to every seat (or standing position), and the actor and director’s careful choice as to when to move into the light and when to use the shadow for creative and dramatic impact.  You may wonder: but don’t electric lights give that option?  And they do.  But as I think about it, I suppose it’s less organic, less subtle… a lighting plot akin by nature to amplified music as candlelight is to acoustic music.  You may wonder: is a wooden frame so different to a black-box?  And in many ways the answer is no.  But still, this gloriously carved wood is so soothing, so warm, so begging for actors, musicians and costumes to appear within it.  Call me a tree-hugger but go for yourself and you’ll see what I mean. 

I’ve loved the open stage at the Globe on so many occasions that I wouldn’t for a moment say the experience isn’t intimate.  It is wondrously intimate and raw in a way few other theatre experiences can be.  What I found so refreshing about London’s new indoor Jacobean playhouse, however, was that your expectations when you arrive are as expansive as they might be for the Wooden O, but that as the dialogue unfolds (in this play every bit as poetic as the Bard) the collective harmony of voice and music under candlelight, is as hushed as a whisper – not in volume but in tone, timbre – as naked and private as you might feel on a closed film set.  Wrapped up, that’s how I felt throughout the performance.  Wrapped and enveloped by a story which is all the richer for being simply told.

The mainstream press will no doubt make much comment on this occasion, until such time as the novelty wears off and there’s something found about which to be critical.  Yet everyone in the arts and every keen theatre goer should be awed by the achievement here.  From the Globe Trustees and dedicated Architecture Research Group to the historians, architects, timber experts, construction teams and every last carpenter… the vision and persistence to realise the vision of Sam Wanamaker sixteen years after the Globe’s official opening on the south bank… and in a market which is economically difficult and entirely reliant upon generous donations… is quite remarkable.  

I was inordinately proud to play a miniscule part in the Festival of Firsts at the Globe in 1997… so proud I kept the cheque for ages before cashing it, as I’d have willingly paid them to carry a spear… and all the emotion of that experience came back to me as we stood to applaud the talented cast of The Duchess of Malfi.  What came back to me too was the sense of unbridled fun and adventure, the sense of an undefined and exciting horizon.  That’s what London has again in this precious new Playhouse.  Mr Wanamaker and the Elizabethan and Jacobean artists must be watching over it with such a big smile!

Admittedly I was in the front row of the Pit for this experience on the 9th January.  But I expect to feel as intimately rewarded when I return for Eileen Atkins’ evening with Ellen Terry.  It’s a unique and most interesting house in which to play.  Don’t let the lucky actors in this first season have all the fun – get yourself along!

            Recommendation: http://www.shakespearesglobe.com/