Lighting the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse with candelabra
Lighting the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse with candelabra © James Royall

In the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, the technical team is debating the challenges of extinguishing an awkwardly placed light midway through a scene. “We could use a fishing line,” speculates one person. “I think that might be distracting,” says artistic director Dominic Dromgoole, wryly.

Normally, of course, you simply flick a switch or set a computer programme. But these technicians have turned their backs on such wizardry. The theatre is a precise replica of a Jacobean indoor playhouse: when it opens in January with Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, it will be lit solely by candles throughout performances – just as it would have been 400 years ago.

The theatre itself is exquisite: a compact wooden chamber built in pale oak and holding 320 spectators. Two galleries run snugly round the walls, embracing the pit and stage in a horseshoe. This is the companion to Shakespeare’s Globe on the Thames Bankside: where the Globe is a boisterous, outdoor, summer venue, the Playhouse will be its intimate, indoor, winter cousin.

I’m here to watch a candlelight experiment, testing out the effects of suspended chandeliers, handheld tapers and candelabras. The theatre is dusky dark and faintly scented; the bronze sconces on the wooden pillars give off a whiff of honey from the beeswax. On the stage someone is creeping around with a lantern, her face a pale smudge. “Now make yourself disappear,” says Dromgoole. She whips shut a door on the lantern and we are plunged into black.

Martin White, professor of theatre at the University of Bristol, is the candle expert on the project. When we meet a few days later, I put it to him that we have a very different relationship with candles to our predecessors. They tend now to be festive rather than routine. Isn’t there a danger of nostalgia – of drifting into a pretty, sanitised reproduction of the past? And just how authentic can you be? Might the charm pall? After all, we have moved on in expectations – and the original Globe burnt down.

A CGI of the Playhouse, designed by Allies & Morrison

White replies that the fire authorities have been “brilliant”. To maximise safety he has gone for beeswax rather than the more unstable tallow candles. The Jacobeans used both, he says. There is electric house lighting in the theatre: audiences won’t be obliged to stumble around hunting for their seats. White stresses that the aim is not to create a “heritage experience” but to balance authenticity with common sense. “You’ve got to make it sufficiently true to the past practice but, equally, make a judgment about what works . . . I hope it will alter the way we watch the plays.”

What we will see in practice, he hopes, is the significant impact on drama of moving indoors. Until about 1610 all theatre was staged outdoors; at that point, playwrights suddenly had new stagecraft possibilities. They could control the light precisely, using it to create atmosphere or pull focus around the stage.

“Plays start becoming very interior,” says White. “Scenes are very small, plays become more intimate – they kind of fold you in. John Ford [author of ’Tis Pity She’s A Whore, c1629] writes really intense plays that are often just scenes between two people, both at the edges of their experience. It’s almost like eavesdropping.”

The hope is that mounting the plays in their original environment will increase understanding of them. For Dromgoole, it means learning new tactics: such as how to get contemporary actors to look relaxed holding candles. “Actors become their own lighting designers,” he says, “which means they have to collaborate. They can cast each other into darkness on stage by walking away.”

In the dark, with a flickering light, the small space feels conspiratorial: well-suited to those macabre Jacobean revenge tragedies. You can see why playwrights might have revelled in the opportunity for visual tricks: all those plot twists that depend on deception. And lurid details, such as a severed finger, would make a real impact at close quarters and suddenly illuminated by candle.

Dr Farah Karim-Cooper, who chairs the Architecture Research Group for the Playhouse, thinks the “effectiveness of illusion” became very important in indoor performances.

“Outdoors, illusion requires participation from the audience,” she explains. “The audience has to agree to the illusion. But indoors, you can actually trick your audience as well.”

A candlelit performance in Denmark in the 18th century

Illusion could be used to macabre or magical effect. Consider the great revelation of the statue at the end of The Winter’s Tale – the first play staged by Shakespeare’s company in its indoor space, in 1611 – and then imagine it by candlelight, the dancing flame making you uncertain whether she moves or not. “When Shakespeare does his statue scene in The Winter’s Tale, he’s trying to evoke wonder,” says Karim-Cooper. “Three years later when Webster does it in The Duchess of Malfi with wax effigies, he’s trying to evoke horror.”

Back in the Playhouse, we’ve become attuned to slight variations in light. The fatter candles give off a warmer, steadier glow; the thinner ones are brighter, more precise. A woman sits on the side of the stage, her face bathed in a glow from her handheld light. She looks like a study by Rembrandt. It is, of course, partly this aesthetic effect that pleases us. And there is something both comforting and defiant about that fragile, intense flame.

It is the season, certainly in the northern hemisphere, when candles flourish and people celebrate their symbolic significance. Perhaps, in winter, there is a basic instinct to huddle round a fire telling stories. There is a neat fit, too, between the transitory nature of live performance and the brief life of a candle.

“It’s interesting that we use this phrase ‘live flame,’ ” says White. “It moves, it dances, it flickers . . . The great moment [in the Playhouse] is when the six chandeliers are suspended just above the stage. And then they’re lit and they go up, and the light travels up the theatre – it is the most wonderfully energising beginning to a play.”

To finish the experiments, the team goes through this manoeuvre. The chandeliers rise slowly, catching strategically placed gilt circles on the walls as they go and finally illuminating the painted ceiling, fretted with gold stars. Everyone in the theatre watches, mesmerised. The room suddenly looks much bigger: we’ve gone from near dark to surprisingly bright light. But is there a danger that it’s too beautiful? Might the actors be upstaged by the lighting rig?

“There’s a danger of that,” agrees Dromgoole. “It could all get a bit intoxicating and nebulous. I think if any of it becomes more important than the story, you’re screwed.”

How, then, to avoid becoming a charming, one-trick novelty? Dromgoole argues that the lighting must never be simply decorative: the merits of using candles (or not) will be assessed for each production. The first season is a tester, including a 17th-century comedy (The Knight of the Burning Pestle) and an opera (L’Ormindo). But the hope is to expand the repertoire, even to new work, as the Globe has.

Over time, the Globe has shaken free of initial worries that it might be nothing more than a tourist attraction and proved a demanding and invigorating venue. The hope, says Dromgoole, is that the Playhouse will do likewise. “It’s this funny journey of going backwards to go forwards.”

Sam Wanamaker Playhouse opens on January 9 with ‘The Duchess of Malfi’,

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