Illuminating the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse 10th Anniversary Season
Dr Will Tosh illuminates the 10th Sam Wanamaker Season, shedding light on Ghosts, Othello and The Duchess of Malfi.
When the British writer Robert Farquharson Sharp translated Henrik Ibsen’s Gengangere (1881) at the start of the twentieth century, he used the English title of ‘Ghosts’ that had become customary (the original Danish-Norwegian meant something closer to ‘revenants’), but he tweaked Ibsen’s subtitle: the ‘familiedrama’ became ‘a domestic tragedy.’
With his subtle change of emphasis, Sharp drew a connection between the realist ‘problem play’ of the nineteenth century, and the dramas of jealousy, madness and cruelty of the early modern theatre. This winter in the candlelit Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, the unhappy families of Ibsen, William Shakespeare and John Webster collide.
Perhaps at first glance there’s not much to link the bourgeois world of Ghosts – bleak fjords, icy propriety, corrosive histories – with the violent excesses of The Duchess of Malfi (c. 1614) and Othello (c. 1603).
But the disturbing themes of the latter two plays occupy the backstory to the former: Helene Alving withstands, with superhuman capacity, the abuse and gaslighting and infidelities wrought upon her by her husband. Nineteenth-century dramatists and audience-members were no less intrigued by betrayal and cruelty than their Jacobean predecessors, for all that Victorian society’s prudishness demanded that much be left unsaid. Squalid human failings lie subsumed in the lives of Ibsen’s middle-class families, eating away at their respectable foundations like dry rot.
There’s something of Webster’s Duchess and Shakespeare’s Desdemona in Ibsen’s Helene: a woman who breaks rules, refuses patriarchal control, and tries her best to pursue her desires.
And all three major plays of our winter season are concerned with the claim of the individual to a stake in society. Who belongs? In Ghosts, Helene (a widow with a secret) must fight for her rights, and those of her consequence-stricken son Osvald. In Malfi, the powerful Duchess struggles to retain her status while following her heart – and the malcontent Bosola, an awkward fit in any group, puts his ethics aside to obtain a position as household spy for the Duchess’s corrupt brothers. Othello is the most scathing of all our ‘domestic tragedies’ of 2023-24: as a man of colour, the general faces a battle for survival in a white society that veils its supremacist underpinnings behind a seeming meritocracy.
The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, celebrating its tenth anniversary in 2024, has always been an unsettlingly apt location for family drama. Our ‘fair lightsome lodging’ (in Webster’s phrase) – a gleaming wooden chamber – provides the perfect backdrop for stories of unravelling minds and intimacies betrayed. Join us inside this winter as we bring early modern England and nineteenth-century Norway thrillingly up to date.