The Duchess of Malfi, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, London. January 2014
I've been excited about this play for a long time, and even more so since I have been studying the theatres of the Jacobean era and first of all let me say that this didn't disappoint.
Over the past few years I've seen the outside of the new Playhouse take shape on visits to the Globe and I've also been following in the interior build thanks to the photos posted by The Globe on their website. A quick Google search shows the stages of the build and it has to be said that the CGI projections of what the finished building looked like were accurate but don't do it justice.
Inside it is like travelling in time (except thankfully without the aromas!) the theatre is all made of wood and lit with beeswax candles that are on movable chandeliers as well as some fixed candle sticks on the pillars. Actors also carry candlesticks with them as they move about the space. The candles are also lit and extinguished throughout the performance so there is the lovely smell of wax and smoke at times too!
Now the play. I saw the Duchess of Malfi in 2012 and liked it very much, although looking back now I remember incidents and the Duchess clearly but the rest of the play and the actors have faded completely from my memory.
The version at the SWP managed to be physically lighter than the version I saw before, despite using no modern lighting. This made the impact of the darker scenes greater as you really noticed when the mood changed, it also meant that the characters themselves were more visible and I found all of the roles easy to distinguish and keep track of. Seeing the actors all of the time also meant that I got into the rhythm much quicker.
The flickering light and small space made the play feel very claustrophobic (in the right way) as an audience member you were complicit in the action and could see every small flicker of emotion on the characters' faces.
The horror scene however wasn't as effective in this version, I had forgotten when it occurred in the play but just didn't buy into the scene at all. However I did have many more goosebumps running up and down my arms throughout the play and it was scarier over all.
This version also lost a lot of the carnality I remember from the version at the Old Vic, however this did mean that we saw the action unfold rather than have it told to us. Ferdinand's unhealthy obsession with his sister and descent into madness were much clearer in this version, and thoroughly creepy.
It was nice to see some of the main Globe's actors in a smaller space, and also to see similar styles of theatre from the open air stage scaled down but still visible in the new space.
However the new theatre isn't without problems, it feels cramped even after making use of the cloakroom. Leg room is an issue and Mr Norfolkbookworm with his long thigh bones was very uncomfortable. The Globe have always said that no seat in either of their Playhouses has a totally unrestricted view of the stage this is more true in the indoor theatre than ever. We had a very good view of the stage from our favourite area at the back of the Upper Gallery but even leaning forward we couldn't see the pit (unlike at the outdoor theatre) and seeing as the standing spots are twice the price of the Groundling area (listed on line as having the best view for only £5) the view from them appeared to be dreadful.
None of this has put me off, I'm going back in about 6 weeks to see the next Jacobean play performed. I loved the play and the playhouse but with a few reservations about the seating.
This images from Reuters gives a feel for the interior...