Sam Wanamaker Playhouse: A Jacobean theatre on Bankside

By Isabel Sutton
BBC Radio 4

image captionThe intimate theatre is lit by candles, which were used in the first indoor theatres

Fourteen years after the opening of Shakespeare's Globe, the vision of its founder is about to be fully realised.

The thatched amphitheatre on London's South Bank now stands cheek by jowl with a brand new, old theatre: the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse.

This second theatre is designed to replicate the indoor playhouses of the early 17th Century. It's not a reconstruction of one particular theatre - it's an archetype of the kind of indoor spaces in which the late romances of Shakespeare, the dark revenge plays of John Webster and the satirical city comedies of Ben Jonson would have been performed.

Sam Wanamaker, the father of actress Zoe, came up with the idea of a pair of theatres - one outdoor, the other indoor - to represent the varied theatrical landscape of late Elizabethan and Jacobean London.

The first half of the plan - the Globe - came to fruition in 1997. But the indoor Jacobean theatre has not existed until now.

The construction of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, based on drawings of a Jacobean theatre auditorium by a protege of Inigo Jones, is a reminder the Shakespearean theatre was not all about the Globe.

image captionThe design of the building has been based on drawings by Inigo Jones' protege John Webb

When Shakespeare arrived in London (probably in 1586), he joined a troupe of actors led by the impresario James Burbage. They were based at a theatre in Shoreditch called, simply, The Theatre.

In 1597, Burbage's lease on his Shoreditch premises expired and the company was forced to look for a new home. Burbage's answer was to purchase and convert a hall in the Blackfriars - a precinct in the City of London protected by the status of a "liberty" which shielded it from interference from the aldermen.

Had things worked out as hoped, the Globe might never have existed. But Burbage's plan was scuppered: the local residents of the Blackfriars objected to the arrival of an adult acting company in their area.

Burbage then died and his son Richard was forced to rent out his father's newly acquired hall to a group of boy players.

Children's acting companies were in vogue at the turn of the 16th Century. They rivalled the adult players, who were deemed to attract a less salubrious clientele.

image captionThe finished building has been designed with careful research into the materials, methods and the decorative aesthetics of Jacobean buildings

Richard Burbage and his men were left with no choice but to quite literally up sticks and carry the timbers of the old Theatre across the river to Bankside.

They constructed a new theatre with the salvaged materials and called it The Globe. By 1599 they were back in business.

But, as with the modern Globe theatre, the weather hindered performance during the winter months. So Shakespeare's company - by this time named the King's Men under the patronage of James I - aimed to reclaim their indoor theatre at the Blackfriars.

This they did in 1608, thanks to their growing popularity with James I and the corresponding disgrace of the boy players whose satirical performances had outraged the king.

The Globe became their summer theatre and the Blackfriars was used for the winter season.

At the Blackfriars, the audience was small but affluent and capable of paying the six penny fee for a comfortable seat.

At the Globe, however, the crowd was much larger with perhaps even 3,000 people, but only required to pay a minimum fee of a penny.

Some scholars believe there was a special Blackfriars' repertory, with playwrights devising plays specifically for the indoor space, but others disagree.

Professional theatres were a recent innovation in Jacobean London and plays had to be versatile: fit for performance in an inn or the royal court.

Playwrights may also have had their preferences. John Webster had certainly had enough of the outdoor theatre after his play, The White Devil, was not appreciated as he thought it deserved.

image captionThe Duchess of Malfi, starring Gemma Arterton, will open the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse on 9 January

His next revenge tragedy, The Duchess of Malfi, was put on at the Blackfriars, where Webster might have expected a more attentive and discerning audience.

Not according to Webster's contemporary Ben Jonson though, who satirised the clientele of the Blackfriars playhouse in his play The Devil is an Ass.

The central character, a young squire named Fabian Fitzdottrell, regards a trip to the Blackfriars as an excuse to admire women in their finery and to show off his own cloak and suit.

We know stools were available on the edge of the stage for a few well-heeled audience members. The occupants of these places could enjoy the attention of their fellow theatregoers, but also secure a superior view of the stage.

The Duchess of Malfi is full of "ridiculous small props including a severed hand and a poisoned book," says Tiffany Stern, Professor of English at University College Oxford.

The most expensive seats at the Blackfriars - to the right and left of the stage as well as on the stage itself - might have afforded privileged members of the audience glimpses of whispered conspiracies and underhand dealings that others couldn't see.

Webster's tragedy will open the new playhouse on 9 January. There'll be no sitting on stage, but the small audience will experience the same intimacy that would have been felt by the first audiences of the play.

It will also be "an experiment" for the actors, according to former Bond actress Gemma Arterton who is playing the Duchess.

"We are actually our own lighting technicians in a sense," she says. "We ourselves have candles in our hands."

Candles were used in the first indoor theatres and are thought to have precipitated the division of the play into five acts: the candles had to be trimmed and music would be played in the intervals.

Like the modern Globe, the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse will combine old with new.

It is impossible to recreate the atmosphere of the first indoor theatres. But the beautiful oak interior, with its green, grey and gold paintwork, real candles and even a children's acting company to perform on its stage, promises to provide a fascinating laboratory for new research and a brilliant and enlightening experience for theatregoers.

Staging a Revenge: The New Jacobean Theatre is on BBC Radio 4 on 6 January at 16:00 GMT.

Related Topics

More on this story

Around the BBC

Related Internet Links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites.