Sam Wanamaker Playhouse Research article

Building the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

  From John Webb’s drawings, to architects’ CGIs, to the final magnificent building itself – take a journey through the construction of our Playhouse

3 minute read

In the 1960s two drawings fell out of a book in Worcester College, Oxford. Assumed to be the work of the 17th-century designer and architect, Inigo Jones, they appeared to provide a template for an early modern theatre and inspired the footprint for the indoor playhouse on the Globe site.

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, 1660.

Architectural drawings for an indoor playhouse

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

In 2005, however, it was accepted that the drawings – pictured above – were the work, not of Jones himself, but of his protegé, John Webb, and of a later date, perhaps 1660. As theatres were not built during the Commonwealth, Webb was perhaps referring to styles of a generation earlier but suggesting decoration from the Restoration period.

‘The aim was to build a reimagined, rather than reconstructed, Jacobean playhouse’

After much discussion involving academics, Neil Constable, Chief Executive, Dominic Dromgoole, then Artistic Director, Mark Rylance, his predecessor, Claire van Kampen, the Globe’s first Director of Theatre Music and Dr Farah Karim-Cooper, Head of Higher Education and Research at the Globe, it was decided that the drawings should provide a basis, but not be slavishly followed. The aim was to build a reimagined, rather than reconstructed, Jacobean playhouse.

A drawing of a birds eye view of an indoor theatre

A drawing of the new piazza level.

An image of a cross section of a theatre

Cross section of the Playhouse. Plans by Allies + Morrison.

In 2010, a budget of £7.5 million was arrived at, to include 21st-century elements such as heating, ventilation and the means to make films.
Naming the Playhouse after Sam Wanamaker was the only requirement of an anonymous donor who pledged a generous £1.5 million of matched funding.

Jon Greenfield, who had assisted the Globe’s architect, the late Theo Crosby (“I was Webb to his Jones”), became ‘Reconstruction Architect’. His experience in building historic structures fed into the work led by architects Allies + Morrison. Along with Peter McCurdy, whose firm was responsible for the Globe’s timber structure, Jon Greenfield and others researched historical timber buildings to help make decisions about structure, finishes and decoration.

A foyer area of a theatre shows people looking up to the higher levels

The Shakespeare’s Globe foyer area before the construction of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse.

The foyer area of a theatre with stairs that lead to the upper levels

As the Playhouse was built, the indoor foyer linking it to the Globe Theatre (and other spaces) was re-created too. Photographer: Pete Le May.

Greenfield thought that the front of the galleries would probably have been straight rather than curved as they were in the drawings. For the Blackfriars, “the timber frame would have been made off-site and you would have had at least a half column on the wall to joint it in.”

In much the same way, McCurdy and his team produced sections of the structure in their workshops in Oxfordshire, to be reassembled on Bankside. The dimensions and viewing angles of a couple of mock-up bays were thoroughly investigated by theatre practitioners and decisions made about standing places and seating, including the unusual placing of benches facing each other in the pit, as shown in the drawings.

A close up of a wooden material with textured patterns carved into it

Sam Wanamaker Playhouse close-ups. Photographer: Pete Le May

The Playhouse has mainly oak surfaces in the panelled galleries, but softwoods too were used increasingly in 17th-century buildings, so Scots pine went into the ceiling, flooring and stage boards.

Although nails were sometimes used then, cheaper wooden joints were preferred. The commonest joint in the Playhouse is the mortise and tenon. Where they are pegged, the hole in the mortise and the hole in the tenon are not quite in line so that a tapered peg draws the joint firmly together.

Slender, turned columns support the galleries. These are ‘boxed heart’, each one formed from the centre, the more resilient heartwood, of a single oak tree. The wood is ‘green’, according to tradition, as this is less expensive and easier to work than seasoned wood.

Staircases in grand houses of the period, especially one in Chilham Castle in Kent with elaborate, balustered gallery-like landings and turned columns, provided design clues. The columns in the playhouse, Doric in the lower gallery, Ionic in the upper, reflect those at Chilham: each has a hand-carved lozenge in the square section at its foot.

McCurdy & Co working onsite at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse.

A wide view of a theatre, seen from the upper seating area

Photographer: Pete Le May

The English tradition of painting timber was lost after the Reformation but there are records of theatres in which the ‘frons scenae’ (the back wall of the stage) and the ‘heavens’ (the ceiling above the auditorium and the stage) were decoratively painted. The Playhouse ceiling, with putti and a gold-leaf-surrounded Luna in the centre, was inspired by a similar 17th- century one at Cullen House in Scotland.

People work on building scaffolding which reaches a decorated ceiling

Photographer: Pete Le May

‘The Playhouse is an eclectic mixture of Medieval Gothic and half-understood Classical’

The configuration of the indoor theatre is similar to that of the Globe, with audience on three sides of a thrust stage and a musicians’ gallery above and behind, where gallants might also have sat.

It is more intimate – a mere 40 feet by 55 feet – with some members of the audience only feet away from the musical instruments. Whereas shawm, sackbut and cornet ensembles work well on the Globe stage, here harpsichord and strings, instruments insufficiently robust in sound outside, come into their own.

A computer generated image of an indoor wooden theatre

Before completion, these CGIs were generated to give an idea of what the space would look like.

omputer generated image of an indoor wooden theatre showing gallery seating

The Playhouse opened in 2014 with a production of The Duchess of Malfi, directed by Dominic Dromgole.

omputer generated image of an indoor wooden theatre showing the view of the stage from the upper gallery seating

Computer generated images by architects Allies + Morrison.

Research by Professor Martin White of Bristol University led to the candles being made of beeswax rather than a mix of wax and tallow. Six metal chandeliers, each holding 72 candles, are hoisted on pulleys eight feet above the stage and sometimes lowered between acts for candlewicks to be trimmed.

The size of each candle – also in sconces on the pillars around the auditorium – calculated from contemporary records, is ten-and-a-half inches tall, three-quarters of an inch at the base, tapering upwards.

Jon Greenfield identifies the particular style of the Jacobean period as ‘an eclectic mixture of Medieval Gothic and half-understood Classical’. To match it, he says, required finding ‘the right kind of wrongness’.

A lit candelabra hangs from a decorated ceiling.

Photographer: Pete Le May.


This article, by Heather Neill, originally appeared (in various edited forms) in programmes for some previous productions that took place in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, 2014-2020. You can explore construction further via our YouTube Playlist.