Thursday, February 13, 2014

Indoors and Outdoors

The Duchess of Malfi
I was lucky enough to go to the new Sam Wannamaker Playhouse at the Globe recently, to see its opening production, The Duchess of Malfi.  I've always had a soft spot for Webster - if that's the right term...  not least because my first ever professional production was The White Devil.  Never believed in making life easy for myself.  Not that this particular evening was really about the play - except in so far as it made sense to choose a piece that took place mainly in the dark.

The production is a fascinating experiment in how the indoor theatres of the Jacobean period might have functioned - and it suggests that this new space may well prove even more revelatory than the restored Globe has done.  After all, most of the great plays of the Jacobean age (including the major Shakespearean tragedies) started out in spaces like this - only moving to the Globe stage later on.  I often wonder how a play like Malfi or Macbeth would have coped with the transfer.  This Malfi is occasionally illuminated by the artificial "daylight" that comes through the playhouse windows, but most of the time the shutters are closed, and the space relies on an ever-shifting palette of candlelight.  There are chandeliers that fly from high above the stage to the level of the actors feet - candles on pillars, candles held by the performers.  There is a whole bank of votive candles illuminating the wax effigy of Antonio and the children.  And, of course, there is darkness - real, total darkness, when Ferdinand gives his sister the dead man's hand.  What is really wonderful is the way the candlelight reflects off the gilding which is so present in the decoration of the space, and the jewelled costumes of the performers.  In the 17th century, there would have been just as much metallic glitter on the clothes of the audience, which must have generated a magical glow, and a sense of complicity between stage and auditorium, as both areas were caught in an elevated, transformed, religiose world.

King Lear
I was still thinking about this when I saw the National's King Lear a week later.  Sam Mendes has read it in part as a play about homelessness, and that's fascinating, given the preoccupation of the Jacobean stage with indoors and outdoors.  Lear in an indoor space like the Wannamaker would be the intimate family drama of the interior: Lear in the Olivier is closer to the Globe - demanding acting that defies the scale of open space.  But the secret of the play is surely in the dialectic set up between the two - the sense of home, of family, even of love, set against the impersonal vastness of the elements and the implacable amorality of an atavistic universe bereft of gods.

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