All the world's a stage (or two): Shakespeare's Globe to be joined by a candlelit indoor theatre

The Jacobean-style Sam Wanamaker Playhouse opens in January 2014. Holly Williams takes a peek backstage.

Holly Williams
Saturday 22 June 2013 11:03 BST

'Oh, for a muse of fire that would ascend, the brightest heaven of invention…" So begins William Shakespeare's Henry V; but it was a wish that would come back to haunt the playwright with unfortunate literalism a few years (and Henrys) down the line.

Four hundred years ago this week, on 29 June, during a performance of Henry VIII at the Globe theatre on Bankside, wadding from a stage canon did indeed ascend up through the theatre's 'wooden O' – setting fire to that circular thatched roof. The Globe burnt to the ground; a contemporary account records that the blaze "burned so furiously, as it consumed the whole house, all in less than two hours, the people having enough to do to save themselves". Not that the Jacobeans were too precious about it: the Globe was rapidly rebuilt – only this time, with a tiled roof. It lasted till 1644, when it was demolished after the Puritans closed England's theatres.

Its 17th-century resurrection was certainly swifter than the modern project to rebuild Shakespeare's Globe on the banks of the Thames. American actor Sam Wanamaker conceived of the idea way back in 1949, and founded the Shakespeare Globe Trust in 1970, but it didn't actually open its doors to the public till 1997 – after Wanamaker's death. Even then, it couldn't be said to be wholly complete.

For Wanamaker's vision was always that both of Shakespeare's theatres should be brought back to life – an outdoor playhouse and an indoor theatre, too. It is, to some degree, a testament to the huge popular success of his plan that the public concept now of what Shakespeare's theatre was like, is the Globe: almost circular, open-air, highly decorated, with a standing pit for rowdy groundlings.

But that's only half the story. Each year from 1609 onwards, the company Shakespeare acted in, and wrote for, The King's Men, played indoors at the Blackfriars theatre across the river during the winter. His plays, being year-round popular, would have to work indoors and outdoors, but it is thought The Winter's Tale and The Tempest were written, initially and ideally, for an indoor venue.

So when Shakespeare's Globe was being rebuilt in the Nineties, they also threw up a brick structure next door that could, at a later date, when more funds were raised (the Globe does not receive subsidy), be fitted with an indoor Jacobean theatre. This is currently, finally, being realised; christened the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, its first season opens January 2014.

The structure is based on drawings which were found in the 1960s; falling out of a book in Worcester College Oxford, they showed detailed plans of a Jacobean theatre space. It felt like a gift – but has, in fact, complicated matters somewhat… The drawings were thought to hail from the early 17th century, but at an architectural symposium held at the Globe in 2005, an art historian who had studied the documents dropped a bombshell: drawn by John Webb, they dated from 1660, and were therefore certainly not 'Shakespearean' (he shuffled off this mortal coil in 1616).

These plans were radically different to Blackfriars anyway, which we know was itself a conversion of an old medieval hall. Should they try to recreate that instead? But the outdoor brick shell was already in place – it will provide modern entrances and access to a traditional timber-framed structure built actually inside it – and this existing footprint followed the size and spec of the Webb drawings.

So it was decided that they should stick with plan A: it would not be, like the Globe, an as-close-as-possible best guess at an actual named playhouse, but instead a "Jacobean archetype", a theatre that Shakespeare and his contemporaries would, at least, have felt at home within. And it should recreate the conditions and atmosphere of playgoing in the early 17th century. The wooden space is intimate, will be rather magically lit by candles, and promises very different acoustics to the open-air Globe.

"We wouldn't have done this if it wasn't historically viable or feasible," insists Dr Farah Karim-Cooper, head of the Globe's Architecture Research Group. "We also did a lot of research into the acoustics and visual effects of Shakespeare's Blackfriars playhouse – I keep describing it as haunting the project. So we've taken elements of that space, and we've used the [1660] drawings as a spatial map."

Which was handy for Peter McCurdy, the man who built the Globe and who is now the master craftsman for the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse (SWP). While the building may have been a dream for decades, once they got the green light, funding-wise, it's all happened astonishingly quickly; McCurdy began building in his workshop last September, and moved on site in April. I was given an early look in at the start of this month, and while scaffolding was still being pivoted above our heads, you already get a good sense of the space – a 320-seater, with two levels of galleries curving round three sides of the stage and a small pit for seats in front.

It feels very intimate; the stage is about a quarter of the size of the Globe's, and some seating is right up flush to it. In Shakespeare's day, some of the Blackfriars audience even sat on stage, on stools – it was very much a 'see and be seen' place, with tickets much more expensive than the Globe's. The Shakespeare author and professor at Columbia University, James Shapiro, quips "if you wanted to impress somebody, you'd take them to Blackfriars, like date night, throwing round the money; if you were looking to pick someone up, you'd go to the Globe…". Even the cheapest tickets at the SWP will be twice the price of those at Shakespeare's Globe (£10 instead of £5).

McCurdy, an expert in historical reconstruction and traditional building methods, oversees everything from what type of wood is used (oak for the main structure; Scots pine for the seating and stage) to researching the correct shapes for the pillars and the amount of decorative painting – which is still being debated.

"It's a lot of detective work. You have to find historic precedent and models; without that you're just inventing history," says McCurdy, who spends much time researching still-standing Jacobean buildings, as well as drawings and contemporary accounts.

"It is almost experimental archeology: one is learning the process," explains McCurdy. "One has got to be careful it doesn't become a pastiche. It doesn't want to look like you've cherry-picked [Jacobean features]; it's trying to subtly bring them together so they have both harmony and integrity." All of the wood is hand-finished to give as historically accurate a look and feel as possible, although modern-day power-tools are used in the construction process for speed and affordability. Even so, the project has cost £7.5m.

The question of historical authenticity is one that previously plagued the whole Globe project. In the Seventies, Wanamaker's vision of rebuilding the first 1599 Globe was widely derided: "the concept of reconstructing the theatre seemed quite ridiculous to a lot of people in those days, and even in the 1990s there were a lot of naysayers, people who thought it was going to be destructive to Shakespeare and the history of theatre, rather than instructive – which is what it's turned out to be," says Karim-Cooper. The fear was of a "Disneyfication of Shakespeare, historicising him to such an extent that he no longer has that cultural relevance that we worship now".

Some scholars and commentators sniffily pointed out it was impossible to recreate the experience of Elizabethan theatre – there were just too many practical unknowns, and we, as audiences, are different anyway – and that to try was to ensure modern productions became mere "museum theatre". Heavens – the whole thing was even proposed by an American.

When Shakespeare's Globe finally opened, under the artistic direction of Mark Rylance, it became not just a laboratory for investigating historical stage practices (Rylance has called it "the most experimental theatre space in England"), but a huge popular success. However, there were initially still many disgruntled voices: academics for whom it wasn't accurate enough, and directors, designers and actors for whom it was too accurate. Many felt there was no room for their artistic vision in the elaborate design of the building, or felt exposed by the proximity of the standing audience, the daylight and the British weather.

Then there were critics who were snobbish about tourist audiences who laughed at the wrong places. Anyone who has seen a show at the Globe will recognise the effect the open-air space has, re-invigorating interaction between audience and actors. Rylance has suggested that unexpected comedy was "truly revealed in Shakespeare's writing by the reconstruction", but critics have not always agreed. Productions were accused of being pantomimic, or likened to football matches.

But today, the Globe is an established part of the theatrical landscape of Britain, and under the more recent directorship of Dominic Dromgoole, has also been home to new writing and international companies, as seen last year during the Cultural Olympiad. It's still not to everyone's tastes, but many scholars have found performance experiments there into Original Practices (all-male casts; traditional costume and music) illuminating, while many actors and audiences have found the immediacy of the space throws up new insights into Shakespeare (and other writers), be that unexpected laughter or moments of poignancy.

The cries of Disneyland and museum theatre have abated, then, and the new SWP has, so far, met with little resistance. "I haven't received any hate mail yet!" jokes Karim-Cooper, before adding that they are still careful to keep "very clear of the word 'authenticity' – that word was applied to us, really. As an academic, authenticity is unachievable. [But] I think, overall, reception should be fairly calm, and positive."

So what is so exciting about this new, old theatre – and will the SWP shed a different light on plays and the playgoing experience than the reconstructed Globe? McCurdy thinks so. "It's a real contrast to the Globe, even without considering daylight versus candlelight. Although the structure has similarities at the moment, by the time we've got the finishes, the lime plaster, the panelling and carving, I think it will be very, very different."

What effect it will have on performances remains to be seen; much as the construction is a process of discovery-through-doing, so practitioners, playing with plays in a new playhouse, may be surprised by what emerges. But there are a few features that are notable: the intimacy, the candlelight, the actors holding torches onstage, plus much more subtle acoustics, and therefore greater impact from music.

Would Shakespeare have written differently for these conditions? Shapiro thinks so. "Shakespeare had to write indoor-outdoor plays, playable in both. But [moving indoors] absolutely changed the kinds of plays he was writing; they had to take advantage of the music and atmospherics." He adds that having this space today is "very important", too, in helping us understand the Jacobean era. "When I started teaching I never really thought of the Blackfriars – now when I teach I'm hyper-conscious of playing space. And Jacobean is not Elizabethan; that's the main thing for me about the indoor theatre, it's going to remind us that it was quite a different set of concerns and cultural preoccupations in the early 17th century."

Karim-Cooper agrees. "When you bed [texts] into the particular space they were written for, things are unlocked. If you take The Winter's Tale, where Hermione's statue comes to life; in candlelight, it can be quite a spectacle, the way Shakespeare draws attention in that scene to looking and seeing… it's an incredibly intimate moment, and the indoor theatre brought you that much closer."

Sadly, you won't get to see that magical transformation in the SWP's opening season in January. It's ambitious in its programming: there's a co-production with The Royal Opera of Cavalli's L'Ormindo, and a new company of talented teenage actors – mimicking the Jacobean craze for 'boy players' performing satirical adult dramas – will stage John Marston's The Malcontent. But there is, oddly, no Shakespeare; in a bizarre programming move, Dromgoole begins with John Webster's Duchess of Malfi and shuns Will entirely. Very strange – although he's promised that "in time we will perform the plays of Shakespeare in there". Whether or not the company will transfer summer Globe hits into winter SWP shows, as The King's Men would have seasonally re-housed their repertory, is not yet clear.

Either way, the company at the Globe, like Shakespeare's own, now has two houses to play with. Asked what impact such reconstructed – or archetypal – theatres have, Shapiro is an enthusiastic advocate: "they do amazing things towards making you feel the immediacy and excitement of these plays when they were first staged. You learn that these plays have legs; even if you miss 10 or 20 per cent of the language, the plays carry the audience. It's quite extraordinary that these difficult plays, written 400 years ago, still work – and Shakespeare's best of all."

The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse opens on 9 January 2014;

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in