Staging early modern drama.

To celebrate the first book-length study of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, its author Dr Will Tosh tells us about its highly-anticipated release.

A man standing on the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse stage surrounded by candles

Orgilus (Brian Ferguson) in The Broken Heart, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, 2015. Photograph: Marc Brenner

The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse opened to the public with a production of John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi on 9 January 2014, directed by Shakespeare’s Globe’s then artistic director Dominic Dromgoole. That date also marked the start of the Indoor Performance in Practice Project, a scholarly endeavour to chart our discoveries about stagecraft in the candlelit theatre. Today, Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare is publishing the resulting book: Playing Indoors: Staging Early Modern Drama in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse.

Writing a book means learning to live with long lead times. Although it’s been four years since the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse opened, this is the first sustained response to the indoor ‘Jacobean’ theatre, built to echo the playhouse acquired by William Shakespeare’s theatre company in 1609. The book tells the story of our new venue’s entry onto the London theatrical scene, but its real purpose is to capture the experiences of the artists and audience members who met the space first, and to ask what we’ve learnt about early modern performance through our experiments on its stage.

A woman standing in an old fashioned dress on the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse stage

Gemma Arterton in The Duchess of Malfi, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, 2014. Photograph: Mark Douet

As well as the Duchess of Malfi, the book considers Francis Beaumont’s The Knight of the Burning Pestle (directed by Adele Thomas), John Ford’s ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore (Michael Longhurst), Thomas Middleton’s and William Rowley’s The Changeling (Dromgoole), Ford’s The Broken Heart (Caroline Steinbeis) and Shakespeare’s late quartet PericlesCymbelineThe Winter’s Tale and The Tempest, directed by Dromgoole, Sam Yates and Michael Longhurst. The Royal Opera’s L’Ormindo (Kasper Holten) and Eileen Atkins’s one-woman show about Ellen Terry feature, too. You’ll also get glimpses of the lesser-known plays which we explored in workshops — you might not be as familiar with The Queen and ConcubineSophonisbaThe Lady’s Tragedy or Love’s Sacrifice, but you’ll be glad to find out about them.

Because the history of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse’s design and construction is a book in its own right (and I strongly recommend you read it: Moving Shakespeare Indoors: Performance and Repertoire in the Jacobean Playhouse, edited by Andrew Gurr and the Globe’s Farah Karim-Cooper), the focus of Playing Indoors is squarely on the action: the nitty-gritty of acting under candlelight, or with hand-held lanterns; the challenges posed by the giddily vertical galleries that loom over the heads of the performers; the pleasures and pitfalls of audience interaction in a space that can politely be described as ‘bijou’.

The ceiling of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

The ceiling of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. Photograph: Pete Le May

I haven’t acted on the Playhouse stage, so I rely on the knowledge of people who have: the creative teams and spectators of the early modern dramas that formed the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse’s first three seasons. For over two years, Globe researchers interviewed artists to uncover the essence of performance in the Playhouse. The transcribed interviews run to over 160,000 words — that’s the length of Shakespeare’s six longest plays combined. The views expressed by our artists and audience members represent the institutional memory of the Playhouse’s earliest years, and the book brings together their insights in a ‘users’ guide’.

The book also takes its central argument from this cache of material: the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, despite its intimate scale, offers the audience an amazingly wide range of vantage points, many of which differ markedly from the experience of watching a play in a conventional theatre. There isn’t an ‘ideal spectator’ in the Playhouse — or if there is, they are a disarmingly exploded figure, watching and listening from above, the sides, below and even behind, interpreting the play in many different ways. Faced with this sort of surround-sense environment, today’s actors must adapt their craft and deploy techniques which can feel very far away from modern naturalist performance.

Will Tosh standing on the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse stage addressing the audience

Dr Will Tosh on the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse stage during a Research In Action workshop.

Inspired by our artists’ experiences on the playhouse stage, the book also asks questions about particular cruxes of early modern indoor performance that have puzzled theatre historians for many years. The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is a modern commercial theatre, but it’s also a workshop space for experiments into early modern staging practice. Since 2014 we’ve run public events called Research in Action workshops that explore these questions: what is the relationship in this sort of space between performance and architecture? How can candles be used in performance to enhance the impact of early modern drama? What are the acoustic effects of music within the playhouse, and what can we uncover about early modern musical practices in the indoor theatres? These and other subjects are covered at length in Playing Indoors.

The approaches I use in this book aren’t new: for many years, we’ve encouraged artists to account for their own performance experiences at Shakespeare’s Globe, and the archive of these interviews goes back well over a decade. And even before the Globe opened in 1997, it was a site of experimentation and investigation. The Research in Action format was a development of pre-existing models. But the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse has proved itself remarkably welcoming to public workshops in which scholars, actors and spectators engage in vigorous debate about the questions under consideration, and the events are now an established part of our summer schedule.

Architectural drawings for an indoor playhouse
Architectural drawings for an indoor playhouse
Architectural drawings for an indoor playhouse, believed to be by John Webb, late 1660s (reproduced by kind permission of the Provost and Fellows of Worcester College, Oxford).

It’s true that the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is a different beast to the Globe. Unlike the big amphitheatre, it’s not a reconstruction of a specific theatre, but an archetype of a style of performance venue that echoes several of the indoor playhouses in seventeenth-century London (including the Blackfriars, Cockpit and Salisbury Court theatres). To work experimentally in the Playhouse is to hold a conversation that connects modern theatre practice and theatre history, and find parallels between the present and the past are suggestive rather than absolute. In an essay about theatrical props and ‘practice as research’ at the Globe, Farah Karim-Cooper (our Head of Higher Education and Research) cautions against relying on the ‘spatial instincts’ of modern-day actors when thinking about early modern practice. This is also the case when we think about performance in the Playhouse — perhaps even more so than in the Globe. But Dr Karim-Cooper also reminds us that the work of today’s artists in ‘historic’ spaces offers an invaluable opportunity to ‘unlock hidden potentials for interpretation of the plays performed’ in such a venue, and the new seams of knowledge that the Playhouse has allowed us to tap are gloriously rich.

A woman with ragged wings flying in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

Ariel (Pippa Nixon) in The Tempest, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, 2016. Photograph: Marc Brenner

We didn’t know, for example, that the effect of absolute darkness in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse would be so thrilling; or that a full spread of candles would offer such a theatrically-inviting glow. We’d always thought that early modern indoor playhouses avoided loud instruments like trumpets because the sound would have been intolerable — as it turns out, brassy trumpets are a hoot. And although we anticipated from our knowledge of the Globe that the experience of watching indoors would be an intense one, the occasionally overwhelming feelings reported by some spectators were definitely a surprise. Perhaps the most rewarding revelation has been the Playhouse’s hospitality to language: its crisp acoustic offers an ideal home for the densely engrossing drama of the seventeenth century.

Playing Indoors might be the first book on the Playhouse, but it’s by no means the last word. The years since the period covered by this book (2014–16) have seen a new generation of theatre artists embrace the challenges of working in a candlelit space. There’s so much to say about the performance in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, a theatre that has established itself as a space for theatrical innovation, experimentation and research. I can’t wait to see what the next phase of the Playhouse’s life will bring. 

A pile of books in the shop

Dr Will Tosh is the Research Fellow and Lecturer at Shakespeare’s Globe. Playing Indoors in available from the Shakespeare’s Globe shop or via Bloomsbury.