So I missed one of the big theatrical events of the year: The Duchess of Malfi, the first production at the Globe’s Sam Wanamaker Playhouse and I’ll have to content myself with the news that it is to be screened on the BBC. It was a shame to miss it, but I finally got to see the new theatre last weekend, when I watched Francis Beaumont’s The Knight of the Burning Pestle. As it’s a new and highly publicized space (and it was my first time in it), this post is inevitably as concerned with the theatre as much as it is with the performance. Perhaps it’s wise to be sceptical of the idea that we can separate space and performance; indeed, much of the discussion of the theatre I’ve read has talked about how the space is helping (or will help) us to understand the plays. For this post, though, I want, initially at least, to keep the two things separate: I’ll start by saying some basically very positive things about the production, then I’ll say some more critical things about my sense of the playhouse.
The first thing, then, is to say that this is an enormously enjoyable play and a terrific production which was funny, tender and intelligent. The play’s first publisher, Walter Burre, defended the play after it flopped by saying it had ‘a privy mark of irony about it’, but this modern performance was ostensibly comprehensible to all. There are fine characterizations across the board, but I particularly enjoyed Paul Rider’s Merrythought and Dickon Tyrrell’s Humphrey. Merrythought is so merry he sings at everything, a trait which reaches its comic apex when he greets what he thinks is the ghost of his son, in song: ‘Jasper’s ghost!/Thou art welcome from Stygian lake so soon;/Declare to me what wondrous things in Pluto’s court are done’. Humphrey talks only in rhyme, an absurdity comically accentuated by Tyrell’s careful delivery. But watching the play is also a very curious experience; the onstage performers are regularly interrupted by the Citizen (Phil Daniels) and the Citizen’s Wife (Pauline McLynn) which in turn leads to the problematization of simple distinctions between actors and characters and the development of communities of support around certain actors/characters, as described by Pete Kirwan in his review of the production.
So far, so good, but while it’s clear that this was a production which went to unusual lengths to interact with its audience, and was at pains to emphasize the joyousness of the theatre (in the programme notes, the director, Adele Thomas, suggests that Pestle invites the audience to participate in the biggest adventure of all, which isn’t to rescue a princess, but to mount a play), my inner curmudgeon questions the extent to which this is a joyous communal experience. I’m thinking specifically about seating arrangements and sightlines and how they might impinge upon understanding and enjoyment. In a review first published in the TLS, Emma Smith details how the production made excellent use of the vertical space of the new playhouse. Unfortunately, from where I was sitting, quite a lot of the action taking place above, in the musicians’ gallery (such as the scene with the Princess of Moldavia) was, at best, partially visible. You get the gist of it, of course, but probably not anything like the full picture, and this is a shame. Likewise, because I was sitting at the side of the stage, nearest the tiring house, I missed some of the action taking place at the front of the stage, and directed towards those sitting in the pit. I realize, of course, that these kinds of difficulties can occur at any theatre, but these issues are more pronounced in a production such as this, were part of the pleasure comes from the barrage of images and characterizations thrown at the audience. Of course you won’t be able to catch everything, but it’s frustrating to think there are some things you just don’t have a chance of seeing. It’s sometimes said that indoor playhouses were designed to privilege the listener, rather than the viewer, but I don’t think I gained anything in an auditory sense from where I sat, and I’m suspicious of this idea, in any case, as I happen to think that seeing is rather important (so, too, the director and actors, otherwise, why bother staging things in the first place?)
I think this is a legitimate complaint because the tickets cost £45. The most expensive tickets at the playhouse (the ‘premium’ tickets) cost £60, but £45 seems to be the second most expensive ticket. Given the fact that the production was evidently designed for the benefit of those sitting centrally, I find it a shame that side seats in the ‘Lords Room’ were so expensive. I don’t want to end on this negative note, so, instead, I’ll conclude by pointing out something that I haven’t really noticed in discussions of the theatre, but that I did notice from my seat in the Lords Room: how easy it is, from where I was sitting, to see outside the theatre. At one point in the play, Jasper and Rafe fight and this spills over into the audience and eventually to the offstage space, but from my seat it was easy to look through the windows at the front of the playhouse to see Jasper giving Rafe a good kicking. This was a moment in which the disconnect between the carefully designed ‘original practice’ playhouse and the inevitable interruptions of modernity was built into the performance, but the signs of the twenty-first century playhouse’s ‘newness’ were regularly visible throughout the production. The emergency exit sign located near the pit was conspicuous, as was the presence of the stewards, and from my seat I could get a sneaky look backstage through one of the stage doors (though it was too dark for me to see anything interesting). There’s something quite charming about the incongruous meeting of new and old, onstage and offstage, in a play as keen to blur apparently stable boundaries as The Knight of the Burning Pestle. It’s conceivable that my position in the theatre made me especially aware of this, and for that, perhaps, I should be grateful. Thinking about my seat in the playhouse made me think about the privy mark of playgoing as well the communal experience of the theatre; you gather as a theatrical community, but the experience of the theatregoer differs greatly depending on what can, or cannot, be seen.