The Globe has built itself a time machine. Where it’s own ‘wooden O’ can sometimes feel too much like a museum where plays are performed (and often performed brilliantly) and its competitor The Rose Bankside still feels more project than playhouse, the new Sam Wanamaker is a confrontation with the living theatre of the past. More than that, its first production proves it to be a powerful tool for illuminating new or long lost aspects of a text and of its performance. The bloody tragedy of The Duchess of Malfi may be an obvious way to christen it, but it perfectly demonstrates its potential to become one of London’s most prized and idiosyncratic venues.
Gemma Arterton is a statuesque Duchess, the virtues of the widow seem almost manifest in her stately and unshakeable poise. She finds the character’s wit and intelligence, if remaining so cool in her passions as to slightly alienate. There is a sense in which every performer in this inaugural production is learning how to define their role against the new theatrical opportunities that the venue provides, and Arterton allows her stillness to reflect the candlelight like the face of a portrait. She seems untouched by encroaching shadows, making her a striking visual centre-point for the play, but robbing the character of some of its more interesting contradictions.
There’s no such danger with David Dawson, who sweats and blinks his way into madness as the brilliantly bestial Ferdinand. His gruesome, mole-like performance is a masterful display of villainy, as he and his brother (a wonderfully loathsome James Garnon) plot the destruction of their sister. Sean Gilder takes his time to to flesh out tortured assassin Bosola, but is magnetic once the bodies begin to fall.
Dominic Dromgoole has produced a Malfi that’s balanced like a fine sabre. Courtly comedy and acid jibes are delivered with perfect lightness and the shadows of murder build gradually through the first two acts. Where Webster can easily become a bore, Dromgoole renders him effortless and as adept at quick witted banter as he is with more violent badinage.
Both approach and effect are entirely different from those required and provided by the Globe itself. Where the outdoor space requires an extra dose of sound and fury to make performances audible and engaging, the Sam Wanamaker demands that they pay closer attention to silences and smaller, measured movements. Where the Globe gives actors the rough magnetism of the street performer or town cryer, this diminutive wooden box provides total fascination. Watching the performance is like reading by candlelight, eyes almost watering as you trace the action.
Without a single electric light in the room, scene changes are affected by the raising and lowering of chandeliers, filling the stage with pools of warm light or dimming it to amber shadows with impressive depth and variety. Shutters open and close to permit light from the outside, but there is nothing that isn’t warm and dim, there is something of the midnight mass about every scene. Here it is used directly to illuminate both the virtue of the Duchess and the hypocrisy of her brother the Cardinal, but great things could doubtlessly be produced if its high church effect was played against rather than towards.
The omnipresence of hand-lanterns and candelabras is also a significant modifier to the play’s rhythm and the performers’ movements. Entrances visibly alter the hue and atmosphere of the room, asides see the speaker’s face halved like a divided moon, and acts such as kneeling become far more potent as they bring the performer’s face into the glow of the stage-level candles.
For all the tonal variety this new-old theatre is visibly capable of, it’s unsurprising that it’s most powerful moments come in Malfi’s scenes of horror and madness, and both the masque of the lunatics and the brothers’ attempts to drive the Duchess insane are thrillingly grotesque.
The Globe has brought its usual attention to detail to costume and musical elements, both felt more keenly because they are so close and no longer have to compete with afternoon sunshine and the shuffling of weary groundlings. When the harpsicord strikes up for the final, slyly grim dance, it’s a wrench to plunge yourself back into the fluorescent, distraction-filled 21st century.
The Sam Wanamaker is a giddily exciting new theatre, and this fine production of Malfi signs its sucess in blood and seals it with wax and fire.