Shakespeare’s Globe in London is adding a couple of innovations in its quest to give audiences a sense of theater as it was 400 years ago: a roof and candles. Hundreds and hundreds of candles.
They flicker in sconces and chandeliers inside the Globe’s brand-new indoor venue, which stands alongside its Elizabethan-style open-air playhouse beside the River Thames.
The oak-framed, wood-paneled theater will allow the Globe to stage plays year-round for the first time – starting with a production of John Webster’s revenge tragedy “The Duchess of Malfi” featuring screen star Gemma Arterton in the title role.
The playhouse, which seats 340 people in tiered galleries, was built from original 17th century plans using centuries-old techniques, and its shows will be lit entirely by candles – an exercise in authenticity that came at a price.
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“They’re not cheap,” chief executive Neil Constable, who oversees the Globe purse strings, said recently. “We’ve had to create a new budget line.”
The beeswax candles require frequent trimming by a team of staff – advised, said artistic director Dominic Dromgoole, by “one of the world’s leading candle experts.”
There was also the challenge of getting local government and fire authorities to agree to a wooden structure lit by open flames.
Health and safety officials were “incredibly cooperative and imaginative,” said Dromgoole. He’s emphatic that all the effort was worth it. Candlelight welcomes audiences with “a blaze of excitement and color,” he said, to a venue that smells faintly of wood, wicks and wax.
“The idea was always – if Shakespeare walked in here, would he feel at home?” Dromgoole said.
“A lot of the great plays of the period that this space was built for were written for these conditions,” he said. “Something like ‘Duchess of Malfi,’ it’s rich with references to light.”
Building an indoor playhouse fit for Shakespeare has been a lengthy process.
The new venue is named the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, after the late American actor-director who spent decades realizing his dream of rebuilding Shakespeare’s London playhouse near its original site.
Wanamaker, who died in 1993, dreamed of an indoor theater beside the outdoor Globe, and the brick shell of the venue was built as part of the reconstruction. But financial constraints meant it wasn’t completed at the same time as the Globe, which opened in 1997.
In the past few years, the company has raised most of the 7.5 million-pound ($12.3 million) cost of the new venue from individuals and charitable trusts. Its indoor productions should bring in 100,000 more ticket-buyers a year.
Globe staff call the playhouse an “archetype” rather than a reconstruction – it’s modeled on the designs of several 17th century theaters, including the nearby Blackfriars, where Shakespeare’s company performed.
Architect John Greenfield said the materials were scrupulously researched, including green oak for the galleries. Chisel and saw marks from time-honored craft techniques are visible on the wood.
There are a few concessions to modernity. Understated electric lights help spectators find their seats. And, Greenfield said, “we’ve planned this building to have as many good fire escapes as possible.”
No one knows exactly how the venue will transform the plays staged in it. In the ’90s, naysayers predicted the Globe would be a tourist trap offering “olde worlde” Shakespeare, but its productions have proved both popular and innovative. The Globe’s all-male productions of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” and “Richard III,” starring Mark Rylance, are now running on Broadway.
If the atmosphere at the Globe is often open, inclusive and raucous, the new venue seems ideal for reflective, spooky and menacing moments – Dromgoole has even called it the “anti-Globe.”
Its repertoire will include Shakespeare’s late plays, as well as the bloody, brooding works of Jacobean playwrights who came after him.
Dromgoole said that even before the opening night of “The Duchess of Malfi” on Wednesday, cast and crew had learned “a huge amount” about the plays from the new-old building.
“We’re learning about their capacity for intimacy. We’re learning about their extraordinary psychological depth,” he said.
“The stillness of the face under candlelight … immediately makes it a very intimate, very psychologically deep and detailed exercise in a way you can’t quite achieve in the broadness and the breadth and the light of the Globe.”