Sam Wanamaker Playhouse Story

Shakespeare's late, great romances

  How the enchanting and supernatural nature of Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest made them perfect plays for the indoor, candlelit playhouse

5 minute read

The magical atmosphere of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is ideal for the performance of Shakespeare’s last plays. Indeed Shakespeare seems to have written them expressly for just such a space.

Apparently after 1608, the King’s Men performed their repertory of plays at both the Globe and the Blackfriars playhouses: Simon Forman, the famous alchemist, quack-doctor, and diarist, recorded having seen The Winter’s Tale at the Globe in May of 1611 (although one wonders if he left early because he doesn’t mention the brilliant ending). Even with both indoor and outdoor stages, it is hard to imagine that Shakespeare in composing the play did not first conceive of an intimate sphere where the audience, relatively free from distractions, could be enchanted with candlelight, music, and theatrical sorcery.

A woman descends from a trapdoor in the painted heavens of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, which is lit by candlelight

Shakespeare’s audience could be enchanted with candlelight, music, and theatrical sorcery. Pericles in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, 2015. Photographer: Marc Brenner.

PericlesCymbelineThe Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest: Shakespeare’s last four plays form a powerful affinity group, and it’s natural that directors – Dominic Dromgoole here and now as part of the 2015/16 Sam Wanamaker Playhouse winter season, Peter Hall at the National in 1988 – should want to produce them together. While agreeing on their shared, distinctive features, scholars still debate how to categorise and what to call them. In a simple sense they are comedies: they end happily and prompt the audience to an affirmative view of human experience. But the happy endings are inflected with sadness, sometimes as a result of painful losses. The unlooked-for joy that attends the final reunions in The Winter’s Tale is mitigated by the inescapable presence of death—the death of a child. Thus, it has been argued, their radical mixture of tones means that they ought to be known as tragicomedies. The nineteenth-century devised a label that has survived even into our own century: given their resemblance to fairy tale, their emphasis on familial separation and reunion, their exotic locations, and their dabbling with the supernatural, many believe that they should be called ‘romances’.

A woman with large wings and a painted gold face, hangs in the air of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

Given Shakespeare’s late plays resemblance to fairy tales and their dabbling with the supernatural, many believe they should be called ‘romances’. Pippa Nixon as Ariel in The Tempest, 2015. Photographer: Marc Brenner.

After Coleridge and Hazlitt had used that term offhandedly, it was taken up and justified by Edward Dowden in 1874. Shakespeare, he claims,

seems to have learned the secret of life, and while taking his share in it, to be yet disengaged from it; he looks down upon life, its joys, its griefs, its errors, with a grave tenderness, which is almost pity. The spirit of these last plays is that of serenity which results from fortitude, and the recognition of human frailty; all of them express a deep sense of the need of repentance and the duty of forgiveness.

Dowden’s rhetoric may be a bit overheated, but he captures the wonderful incongruity that marks these scripts, and he also identifies the religious dimension that infuses each of them. Thirty years later the young Lytton Strachey, reacting against Victorian piety, took an iconoclastic view: ‘It is hard to resist the conclusion that [Shakespeare] was getting bored himself. Bored with people, bored with real life, bored with drama, bored, in fact, with anything except poetical dreams’. Strachey is wrong, as audiences and readers of these plays prove season after season. But he, like Dowden, is responding to the unlikely, the fantastic qualities they exhibit and the almost improvisational manner in which those qualities are put together.

A woman kneels over the body of a man, lying 'dead' on the floor

In Cymbeline, a princess awakens next to a headless corpse dressed as her husband. Cymbeline in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, 2015. Photographer: Marc Brenner.

All four contain a mix of the sacred and the slapstick: a young virgin fetches up in a brothel and converts the customers; a princess, having taken a powerful drug, awakens next to a headless corpse dressed as her husband [he’s not]; a bear chases a courtier off-stage and devours him; in what seems to be a dream, Jupiter descends from the heavens to promise consolation and happiness; starving victims of a shipwreck are promised a magical banquet, only to have it suddenly vanish; a statue comes to life. The last scene of Cymbeline contains no fewer than twenty-four revelations. To experience these plays in the theatre is to endure and enjoy a violent shift of tonal extremes, from despair to ecstasy.

A special appeal of these dramas is the their willingness to grant the impossible, to offer second chances. From early in his career Shakespeare has been interested in the fortunes of the family: brother against brother, parents who lose children, twins separated, a house divided against itself. The histories and tragedies depict the torment of familial division; the comedies offer reunion. The late plays not only show the pain of loss but magnify it to an almost excruciating degree; then, unexpectedly, they magically reunite parent and child, husband and wife, duke and dukedom. Another special feature, this one a consequence of the unexpected resolution, is their unmatched capacity for moving an audience. The emotional power released at the end of each of these plays is thrilling, both to feel and to watch: it is not uncommon to see an apparently hard-boiled spectator surreptitiously wiping away a tear at the end of Pericles or The Winter’s Tale, and sobs are often audible. Such emotional power forges a rare bond among spectators, creating a sudden community of suffering, joy, and grace.

A man and a woman hold each other, nose to nose

A special appeal of these dramas is their offer of second chances, as in The Winter’s Tale where husband and wife, Leontes and Hermione, are reunited (pictured). Photographer: Marc Brenner.

These last plays exhibit the mature Shakespeare’s recovered faith in the power of the theatre. In the tragedies that dominate the middle of his career, the dramatist repeatedly implies concern about the sinister, negative side of acting: ‘Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage’, says Macbeth. The great villains of the tragedies – Claudius, Iago, Goneril – are all actors, makers of fictions, vicious artists. But in the late plays Shakespeare looks to purify his profession. These romances embrace and celebrate the unreality of art, self- consciously reveling in their own fictionality and inviting spectators to lose themselves for a blessed time in a virtual world.

These plays may or may not represent Shakespeare’s final statement about human experience, but it is undeniable that they make a sovereign case for hope, for art, and for taking the long view.