January 17, 2014 6:34 pm

The Duchess of Malfi, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Shakespeare’s Globe, London

Gemma Arterton as The Duchess of Malfi©Mark Douet

Shakespeare’s Globe is now a significant year-round proposition, thanks to the opening of the indoor Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. At 340 seats, this reproduction 17th-century playhouse is much smaller than the main outdoor amphitheatre. Some of its fittings, too, seem to constitute a compromise between period and contemporary requirements.

One conspicuous area of authenticity is that apart from the possibility of admitting external (though still indoor) light through windows, the Playhouse is entirely candlelit. The opening production of John Webster’s 1613 tragedy is lit by 100 or so candles, equivalent, apparently, to around a 20W compact fluorescent tube. But as Lady Macbeth, another tragic heroine of the period, observed, hell is murky.

And director Dominic Dromgoole makes full use of all available variations so that, for instance, the scene in which the imprisoned Duchess is visited in the dark by her brother Ferdinand is played in complete blackout, until that grotesque waxwork tableau of her dead family is revealed lit by an array of tea lights.

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One palpable impression, in such a different performing environment, is that the Globe house style of acting in broad, clear strokes can seem over-simplistic. This is the case with almost everyone onstage here. Gemma Arterton’s Duchess (pictured) at first seems exceedingly naïve both in her stratagems and in whom she trusts with knowledge of her secret marriage; then in the far grimmer second half she becomes “the figure cut in alabaster/ Kneels at my husband’s tomb” rather than the flintier, more fatalistic yet still comparatively more feeling Duchess we usually see. Only Sean Gilder as the malcontent Bosola finds a person in his portrayal, although David Dawson as Ferdinand is particularly skilled at playing both the character’s encroaching madness and his initial desire for his sister: at one point he deliberately fluffs a line so that it becomes “I am to be – er, to bespeak a husband for you.”

All this is, however, simply to encounter the Globe style anew, and perhaps to be too keen to decry an approach simply because it is different. What is incontestable is that the Playhouse is a major addition to the Bankside venue’s arsenal.


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