Playing at the Wanamaker

Published February 21, 2014

Gemma Arterton’s performance as an impish yet resolutely regal Duchess of Malfi earlier this year raise the curtain on a new stage in the life of Shakespeare’s Globe. The performance by the former Bond girl, who made her professional stage debut in the Globe’s famous outdoor auditorium in 2007, was central to the first production presented in the venue’s new indoor theatre, the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse.

Named after the Globe’s founder, the indoor playhouse to complement its outdoor companion was always part of Wanamaker’s plans. A generic Jacobean space, in contrast to the specific replication of the Globe, it will allow Shakespeare’s Globe to become a truly year-round performance venue.

Lit by the flickering of candle-filled chandeliers, the younger brother to the now teenage Globe main stage, the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse proved a distinctly atmospheric venue for Webster’s vengeful tragedy. Its dark, shadowy corners providing the perfect lurk holes for ne’er-do-wells and the ideal concealers of nasty surprises. But it’s all change for the second production, which will test the potential of the 350-seat space built to replicate the indoor theatres of Shakespeare’s time in very different ways.

First performed in 1607, The Knight Of The Burning Pestle is an anarchic comedy that tells of a show being interrupted by its audience. Perfect, you would think, for a theatre where the lights can’t be turned down on the paying side of the fourth wall and the actors can see that whites of the theatregoers’ eyes.

“There’s great fun to be had with that,” says Matthew Needham, the Globe newcomer who will play the show-disturbing grocer’s apprentice Rafe. “This play is so chaotic and joyous that it will be lovely to see and be with the audience.”

For Needham the chance to perform at the iconic institution is a particular treat. Since his teenage years, the actor has spent many a summer evening as a member of the al fresco theatre’s audience, but this is the first time he has performed there. His move from auditorium-dweller to onstage star within The Knight Of The Burning Pestle is laden with personal symbolism.

“I was lost for words, it was so beautiful.” That’s how Needham describes the first time he entered the new space with its unblemished wooden benching and star-studded ceiling. He was given a sneak preview as part of the audition process.

“I loved [The Duchess Of] Malfi,” he continues, “that dark, mysterious, sinister feeling that you can get, but [The Knight Of The Burning Pestle] is completely different.”

Globe regular Dickon Tyrrell agrees. “We’ll roughen the place up a bit, get it dirty,” says the actor who played Malateste and Grisolan in Malfi and will play Humphrey in the upcoming Francis Beaumont romp. “Finding out how we play comedy in that space will be another exciting journey.”

Tyrrell comes to the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse from a very different position to Needham. He first performed at the Globe in 2007, and his career with the company has included 133 shows as Claudius, the Ghost and the Player King on an American tour of Hamlet, and playing Romeo And Juliet’s Friar Lawrence in a production performed both in the heat of the United Arab Emirates and on a snowy Bankside evening perfect for a postcard.

“It’s so much more intimate,” he says of the new theatre. “You can’t go in there and give it the energy you need in the wooden O. Someone said to me after one of the first previews [of The Duchess Of Malfi] it’s like being in your front room with the play, it’s that intimate.”

Intimate it may be, and having seen Malfi there on press night I can attest to both the stunning beauty and unique atmosphere of the venue, but, like any theatre, it presents its own challenges, not least for the show’s designers.

“Whatever you put on the stage has to be bold and cohesive,” explains The Knight Of The Burning Pestle’s designer Hannah Clark, “what with the audience being able to see each other as well.”

That, she confesses, shouldn’t be a problem with The Knight Of The Burning Pestle. The screwball comedy is nothing if not big and brash, and has the advantage of blurring the line between audience and performer.

A different matter, however, is creating the costumes for the new space lit not by natural light or stage rigs, but by the soft glow of candles. The colours and fabrics, I’m reliably informed, look completely different under a natural light to how they appear on stage. “That can be terrifying,” Clark admits. “Having spent an awful lot of money getting a frock made for it to get on stage and not look okay is not ideal. That was a worry.

“It’s going to be really interesting to see how people are designing for that space in a couple of year’s time, when lots of lessons have been learned,” she concludes.

In the meantime, the new cast each have the chance to explore this brand new venue, test its limits, find its sweet spots and discover its delicious secrets.

“It’s a once in a lifetime experience to open a new theatre,” says Tyrrell who, having explored its dramatic opportunities with Malfi is eager to dive headfirst into The Knight Of The Burning Pestle. “[The show is] louder and it’s faster, so it will be a very different experience. It’s another exciting new start.”

“I was lost for words, it was so beautiful.”