You have to be more than a little silver to remember when it became other than a rarity to see plays performed outside the proscenium arch, and slightly less so to recall Sam Wanamaker’s campaign to recreate the Globe Theatre close to its original site.
Those were exciting days – the Young Vic for the young and the Old Vic for who we are now. The footings of the Swan theatre were discovered under a brewery, then as the “wooden O” began to take shape remains of the Globe itself appeared and were preserved in the basement of a new office building.
Sadly, Sam Wanamaker died before the new Globe was completed. It was fitting that his daughter Zoe was recently asked to open a theatre named after him, built into the fabric of the Globe. This gives an impression of the kind of theatre, little more than an average merchant’s hall, where Shakespeare’s last plays were performed.
Having been to the Globe some years ago we were interested to see how different an indoor performance, depending on candle light rather than daylight could be. As it happens the play was the same, The Tempest.
Small as the Globe may be beside even the warehouses, let alone Tate Modern, of Bankside, the Wanamaker is minute. The best comparison is with the remaining seventeenth century houses between the Millennium Bridge and the Globe. Inside the modern brickwork, size is no matter – except when you have to squeeze into your bench seat in the Pit. (This is my one reservation for silver travellers: be prepared!)
Once installed, though, it’s magic. That after all was a feature of those late plays. On a modern stage they demand a stretching of credulity to breaking point, but inside the Wanamaker, taking in the painted woodwork by candle light, the mind grows ready for anything. Well almost: I was not prepared for having Shakespeare spoken so close I was either directly addressed or part of an intimate conversation. Familiar words and images no more, they were almost my own thoughts. A deeply moving experience.
Someone in the interval muttered about inauthenticity, meaning actors had entered through the auditorium door. Equally they had a “health and safety” passage for doing so, something the authentically reconstructed Theatre Royal in Bury St Edmunds doesn’t have, to the discomfort of some in its audience. The Wanamaker explicity doesn’t claim to be authentic but to give an impression of playgoing in the early seventeenth century. Hence we had ad-lib, including a quip to someone who’d forgotten to switch off his phone and contemporary jokes much as the actors might have produced when the lines were not fixed by folio. Even now of course there’s a dispute about whether the character in Cymbeline should be Imogen or Innogen.
All that apart, it was a thrilling experience. At close proximity actors can speak in “natural” voices, in telling contrast to Prospero’s appropriate theatricality. We learn that illusion was Shakespeare’s as well as Prospero’s business. The Globe complex, now with an education facility and a research centre at the site of yet another theatre – the first on Bankside – the Rose, is both cultural and tourist attraction in great demand, as I found when trying to book tickets. Sam Wanamaker’s memory is well and honourably maintained.