The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, the Globe’s new indoor space, is really as small as all the reviews say. I thought the critics were exaggerating, but no: it’s tiny, a mere 40 by 55 feet. To be fair, that makes it no smaller than many a blackbox theatre, so it may be a little surprising to hear all the talk about its intimate feel — but it’s true that the space does feel extremely intimate. I don’t think it’s the candlelight (about which more later), but rather the layout: the intimacy here is not just between you and the actors, it’s between everyone sharing the space. The semi-circular arrangement of the galleries and the pit (no standees here) means that all audience members are always looking at each other as well as at the performers, and the faces and bodies of those other spectators are very close. Intimacy in the SWP is as much about the shared experience of theatregoing as it is about being right next to the actors. Even at the Globe, it’s possible to focus on the performers on stage and block out the crowd to some extent; in this indoor theatre, I found that virtually impossible (being in an enclosed space might be part of it).

Theatrically, this deliberate claustrophobia is quite powerful. Historically, it’s perhaps a little problematic: the SWP’s is a very crowded auditorium even with spectators dressed in modern clothes; I can’t imagine how much more crammed this kind of space would have been in the seventeenth century — and how many fewer spectators it would have held. The Globe team has been adamant that the new space is not a reconstruction of the King’s Men’s indoor playhouse, the Blackfriars. Having this venue available does not mean that the company can now have a go at replicating the King’s Men’s post-1610 situation, in good part because the Blackfriars was a much bigger, loftier, roomier space than the SWP. The new venue might come closer to replicating conditions at the Cockpit/Phoenix or perhaps the earlier playhouse at St Paul’s, though it’s safe to say that if it does, neither theatre could have seated close to the 350 spectators the SWP can hold.

I’m generally skeptical of the utility of so-called original practices approaches — I appreciate their aesthetic merits, but I find their historical (let alone historiographical) value severely limited. I thus have no idea if watching a performance of an early modern play in a space that approximates putative staging conditions in a Jacobean playhouse (but not one this particular play was written for) gives me, a twenty-first-century spectator, anything resembling an insight into actual early modern performance techniques or effects. Still: watching a show lit by nothing but candles and (ironically, fake) daylight filtered through small windows is an interesting experience, and it does produce some sort of knowledge. If even to eyes used to abundant electrical light a single candle is enough to light an entire theatre, as it was in this show, I think we can put paid to the notion that Jacobean audiences experienced indoor playing spaces as “dark.” Of course that single candle produces more murk than light, but eight candles in wall sconces combined with four in a hand-held candelabra were easily enough to produce a well-lit stage (the SWP is certainly not a darker theatre than many modern venues — far from it). Even more surprising to me was that I didn’t find the difference between that fairly minimal lighting setup and the full-blast light with all shutters open and all chandeliers lit especially notable — it was brighter, to be sure, but not that much brighter. A more significant effect was achieved by candles or candelabra held close to faces: the early modern equivalent, I suppose, of a follow spot. Not only did the actual brightness of the closely lit face stand out, the relative brightness of lit skin also made the surrounding area appear darker, isolating the lit figure in space, or creating an intimate two-shot of sorts when the light was shared by two people. Some of the mechanics are awkward: having a lover hold up a candelabra to his beloved’s face is a bit of an odd gesture. But the payoff seemed worth it. Not worth it, to me at least, was the extra light created by having the chandeliers lowered to shoulder height, leading to a setup where actors have to wonder among the candles — the obscured faces and bodies and the undesirable frisson of watching someone wearing a flowing outfit repeatedly brush against flames struck me at least as too high a price for a little additional brightness. In any case, it certainly didn’t take more than this one performance to convince me that Farah Karim-Cooper is rightly skeptical about the idea that “indoor Jacobean theatres were primarily auditory spaces.” (Although I must admit that this strikes me as a weird theory anyway — surely there has long been broad agreement that the indoor theatres offered a more controlled visual environment than open-air playhouses, and that the former could create visual effects unachievable at the Globe or the Fortune?)

The most striking lighting “design” moment of this production is the famous scene in which Ferdinand gives his sister a dismembered hand to kiss — a scene which the play casts in darkness, as Ferdinand asks that all lights be extinguished before he enters, and which in the SWP also takes place in the dark. Interestingly, the setting didn’t actually increase the horror of the object, which was invisible to us as much as to the Duchess, and which had little visual impact once the lights came back on, as it was lying, discarded, in a corner of the stage. Instead, in plunging us into the same darkness as the Duchess, the production brought out the terror of her realization that what she is holding is not in fact her brother’s hand, that the fingers are cold because they are dead — a terror that builds slowly in the dark and is then all the more intense because of the dark, because it cannot immediately move from dread to certainty, but has to linger as she, and we, wait for the candles to be re-lit. The darkness also changed the sense of intimacy I wrote about before: it both shrunk and expanded a space that was now suddenly only defined by voices, by the actors’ ability or choice to fill (or claim) the air. But all of these effects depended on the difference between this darkness and the golden light created by even a single candle: what was so shocking about the blackout was how little it took to create it, and how little was needed to lift it. I don’t think “darkness is the predominant visual tone,” as Karim-Cooper writes in one of the program notes — on the contrary, various states of warm, suffusive light dominate this production, which makes the total darkness of the disembodied hand scene all the more affectively powerful.

The other surprising and possibly historically relevant observation I took away from my first Wanamaker show was an enhanced sense of stage geometry. Granted, I sat in the front row of the pit, so was viewing the stage from a lower angle than most, but I was still struck by how much vertical arrangements played a role in this production, and how much the space lends itself to those kinds of arrangements. Characters in the balcony commenting on characters below, groups of figures rotating from upstage to downstage — all of these blocking decisions produce more three-dimensional images than on the Globe stage. The biggest difference between the SWP and other small theatres might be the height of the stage itself (or that there is in fact a stage at all), and at first this might seem like a disadvantage; but as Dromgoole was using it, the elevated platform made great visual sense. Figures standing at the edge of the stage seem to tower over the pit and immediately take focus (I suspect the power spots in the SWP are in very different places than in the Globe); when those figures then kneel, as some of them do, the effect is powerfully and immediately humbling, as they come closer to our level. Having figures in the balcony comment on the action below also works beautifully here, partly because even “up there,” the actors aren’t very far away from any of us and can be as present as they want to be; to my mind at least, it’s much easier in the SWP to switch focus from balcony to stage and back, or to keep both places in focus at the same time, than in the Globe. I have no idea if that perception mirrors Jacobean theatrical practice or experience, and I suspect the effect is quite different from the galleries, but it struck me as quite remarkable from where I was sitting.

Now, that’s about 1500 words about a theatre. What about the show?

I love Webster, and aspects of this production reminded me why. Webster writes women like Shakespeare rarely could; he writes domestic scenes of a power and appeal that always eluded Shakespeare. Both of those were in evidence in Dromgoole’s production, partly because Gemma Arterton is a pretty great Duchess (before she’s said much, she’s already said almost everything with the raucous, carefree, loud laugh she gives her character), partly because the chemistry between her and Alex Waldmann’s Antonio works nicely, partly because of the playhouse’s built-in sense of intimacy. I also love Webster’s wackiness (lycanthropy? Really?), but that didn’t necessarily work as well: I don’t think we’re supposed to find it funny when the doctor announces that Ferdinand thinks he is a werewolf, but the line got a big laugh last night. I suspect the Cardinal poisoning his lover by making her kiss the Bible is meant to be grimly funny, but yesterday, I got the sense that people found it clunkily funny: the sort of moment that makes modern audiences think “Ah, how crass. Shakespeare wouldn’t have done that.” A pleasant surprise: the parade of madmen, kind of dull and obscure on the page, was exquisitely creepy (and really rather sad) on stage, where one of the patients climbed all over the balconies while another was chasing imaginary flies that kept landing on his forehead, and where the scene culminated in a memorably uncoordinated and desperate Renaissance dance. On the whole, it’s an effective production, moving at a very brisk pace and succeeding at a lot of difficult challenges (including a pretty compelling dumb show).

But as effective as it is, it’s also museum theatre. I don’t actually think there’s anything wrong with that, especially when it’s well done, as it is here — as long as no one walks away thinking “this is how it’s supposed to be.” Doing Webster (or Shakespeare, or whoever) this way is one option, and there is something moving about the fact that even when a show holds the present at the greatest possible distance from itself, it can still affect a contemporary audience. But no-one should think that doing these plays this way does greater justice to them, or serves them better: it does one kind of justice, and serves them in one, very specific way. And that’s fine. It’s potentially interesting. It can possibly yield the odd insight. It can work on us in all sorts of ways. But it can’t ever be more than one option, or the museum becomes a mausoleum.

That’s not where this ends, though. Because although this Duchess is museum theatre, it’s also not — because it’s not quite consistent enough for that. And for all that I liked about the show, and much as I enjoyed the space, I also left feeling a bit baffled and a bit annoyed.

Stylistically, as a performance, this Duchess is all over the place. Arterton’s Duchess is as alive, as emotionally and intellectually “real,” as one might expect in a performance from an actor mainly known for her film and TV work (I wonder if the Globe decided to cast her and a number of other actors with more of a screen than a stage profile because of the intimacy of the space?). Nothing wrong with that, at all. But she’s paired with a Ferdinand whom David Dawson plays with theatrical abandon, always on the edge of madness, obsessed with particular gestures or situations (at one point, he arranges strawberries and plates on a table with more menace than I could have imagined possible; at another, he turns laughter into a social weapon), and ultimately totally unhinged. Again: nothing wrong with that, at all — it’s an impressive performance. But it inhabits a different stylistic plane than Arterton’s Duchess. That in itself would be OK, too, if it weren’t for the fact that James Garnon’s Cardinall lives in yet another different theatrical universe. He’s the most free with the text of all the major characters, playing the role with a degree of ironic distance, occasionally almost stepping outside of the character, observing himself (and him) acting; he gives some of the lines a very deliberate sarcastic twist, as if signalling to the audience that he, too, is slightly taken aback by the absurdity of it all. Again, in itself that’s just fine; there are a few Rylance-like moments in Garnon’s performance, and I’m not going to complain about that. What’s vexing to me is the inconsistency of it all: what’s the point of building these characters with such different theatrical toolkits? And as if three distinct techniques or approaches weren’t enough, Sean Gilder’s Bosola offers a fourth — this one perhaps least at home in this space. His take on the role often veers into high melodrama, which, with a playwright like Webster, may be overegging the pudding. It’s also a bit of a one-note version of Bosola, this, closer to Iago than to the character the play keeps describing as essentially a good man, a scholar even, but driven into evil by necessity; Gilder’s Bosola is more like a gruff old soldier now killing for the wrong reasons. There isn’t much of a scholar left here, nor is there a lot of nuance. There’s energy, and emotion, and a good deal of presence, and a lot of emphatically spoken Webster — most of which is fine, or at least not inherently troubling (I wouldn’t really care that his Bosola is simpler than Webster’s, if it were what the production needed). But it’s yet another way of doing the play, and of doing character, and of acting. That’s four — and I could go on.

Of course all actors are different, and that difference is part of the pleasure of theatre. But there needs to be some sort of coherent underlying agreement about what they are all doing, as a group, for a show to come together as a theatrical work of art. This one doesn’t, although it’s easy to ignore that moment to moment. But at some points, the incoherence becomes really obvious and really damaging: the climax of the play, with the Cardinal, Ferdinand, and Bosola dying together, was one such moment. Suddenly, three actors who had been doing their thing in their own, specific, incompatible ways through much of the play had to do their thing, in extremis, together. And nothing, as far as I could see, happened. They all three died, more or less. But they didn’t die together. No gruesome harmony of death. Instead, three distinct takes on how to make a character, and how to unmake him. Which would be fine, I suppose, if that kind of meta-theatre were what the production is about. But it’s obviously not. This Duchess of Malfi is a theatrical experiment, staged in an experimental space, but it’s not an avant-garde kind of experiment — it’s an experiment in looking back. In some ways, I think it does a remarkable job of retrospection and imaginative recreation. But stylistically, it’s a muddle — and not for good historical reasons.

One Response to Duchess of Malfi (Webster/Dromgoole), Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Feb 2014

  1. […] it is thought to be crass and unShakespearean, (a point recently made by Holger Syme in his blog post about The Duchess of Malfi at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse). I think non-Shakespearean tragedy is […]

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