Sam Wanamaker Playhouse Research article

An introduction to the indoor Jacobean theatre

  Telling the story of Shakespeare’s playhouses would be incomplete without an exploration of the indoor playing space

4 minute read

In the final act of The Winter’s Tale, King Leontes believes he is looking at a statue of his long dead wife. He is amazed by her lifelike quality and marvels at the artistic workmanship that enabled her re-creation.

This is a highly theatrical moment made even more so perhaps, if it took place within an intimate, candlelit, indoor theatre with audience on all sides of the actors and most dramatically, if there were audience seated on the stage itself.

The Winter’s Tale was written in 1611 and so would have been performed by Shakespeare’s company in their very own indoor playhouse. What is it about this play that makes this fact apparent: the language, the stage directions or something even more subtle, such as the way the candlelight and the cosmetic paint on Hermione’s face create a glittering spectacle that can only be appreciated under these unique performance conditions?

A black and white photo of a brick building

The exterior of the indoor performance space onsite at Shakespeare’s Globe. Photographer: Nick Robins

Perhaps Sam Wanamaker imagined such questions could be explored when he thought of reconstructing both of Shakespeare’s playhouses. What few people realise is that in the 1990s, in addition to the rest of the complex or Globe ‘campus’, the shell of what will eventually become the indoor Jacobean Theatre rose silently alongside the Globe Theatre.

It was based on drawings that were found in Worcester College Oxford in the 1960s. At the time, it was believed these drawings were penned by Inigo Jones, the great seventeenth-century architect, and the magisterial designer of court masques. It was also believed that these drawings were dated to 1616 and so represented the kind of theatre space that Shakespeare himself would have recognised and worked in towards the latter part of his career.

A strip of black and white photographs of a man stood by a model theatre

Shakespeare’s Globe’s founder, Sam Wanamaker, in front of the Globe Theatre model, in 1989. Photographer: Paul Mellor.

Since 1997, the ‘IJ’ shell has served as workshop, teaching and rehearsal spaces for Globe Education and now that the Education and Rehearsal Studios serve this purpose the organisation has been able to turn its energy toward completing the indoor theatre.

However, in 2005 at an architecture symposium held at the Globe, everything changed. The Inigo Jones theory was discredited; instead, new research revealed that the less historically glamorous John Webb, Jones’s protege, authored the drawings. To add to this, it was also suggested that the drawings could have been penned later in the seventeenth century, long after Shakespeare’s death.

Architectural drawings for an indoor playhouse

Architectural drawings for an indoor playhouse, originally credited to Inigo Jones but now believed to be by John Webb, late 1660s.

Architectural drawings for an indoor playhouse

These drawings are reproduced by kind permission of the Provost and Fellows of Worcester College, Oxford.

In 2008, the Globe’s Architecture Research Group (an advisory group consisting of academics, theatre artists, architects and various other specialists) turned its attention to the indoor theatre project. Since then, we have been working with a range of experts beyond this specialist group to determine what these drawings represent and how we might faithfully build an indoor theatre like the one Shakespeare worked in. Many scholars believe that the auditorium, found in the Webb drawings, reflects an early theatre design. It shows an architectural layout that is explicitly consistent with late Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre spaces, such as the curvature of the galleries and the boxes on the side of the stage. We can also see that there’s a musician’s gallery, upper stage level seating and three doors leading into the tiring house. These features are unmistakably associated with a theatre tradition that dates before 1625. And so, we are designing and building an indoor Jacobean theatre that will be different from but that demonstrates continuity with the Elizabethan Globe in the hopes that we can explore what happens to a play once it moves indoors.

A drawing of a birds eye view of an indoor theatre

Present day drawings show our plans for the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse foyer level and ground section. Drawings courtesy of architects Allies + Morrison.

We want to explore how a play like The Tempest dazzled its audiences by candlelight. What will this acoustic environment reveal about the staging of storms in Shakespeare’s play? We want to showcase Shakespeare’s great contemporaries such as Ben Jonson, Thomas Middleton and many more, so that we can discover and experience the effects of the wax bodies or the dismembered hand in an indoor candlelit performance of John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi. Will Jacobean tragedy seem even more macabre? What will happen when Macbeth is brought indoors? Will there be an added irony to the line ‘out, out brief candle?’ But importantly too, how will modern actors respond to working with audience at such close proximity and with candles and torches blazing around them?

These are only a few of the many questions that we can begin to ask about the early performances of Shakespeare’s plays and the plays of his contemporaries.

A large group of people in high visibility jackets and hard hats stand on an indoor construction site

The team behind the construction of our indoor playhouse. Photographer: Hannah Yates