Monday, 3 February 2014

The Duchess of Malfi

Gemma Arterton as the Duchess of Malfi at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at the Globe
The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at the Globe Theatre is something of an experiment. It is based on our sketchy knowledge of the Jacobean indoor playhouse at Blackfriars and the so called Inigo Jones drawings. These latter are now known not to be by Jones, do not seem to have been for a real playhouse and are of rather a later date than the Blackfriars building. I went to see the opening production,  Dominic Dromgoole's production of John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi on Thursday 30 January.

Richard Burbage's acting company, which included Shakespeare, used the refectory of the old Blackfriars priory in which to construct a theatre for playing during the winter. This knowledge, combined with elements of the 'Inigo Jones' drawings (now credited to John Webb), has informed the design of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. The resulting structure is something of a handsome experiment which will enable us to learn how Jacobean plays worked when indoors. The striking wood auditorium with two galleries and a small pit, has a permanent stage with a gallery for musicians above. It seats around 300 audience, in very close proximity on wooden benches. On this basis, Jacobean theatre going was not comfortable.


Lighting comes from windows in the structure which are artificially lit and can be closed with shutters, plus candles in sconces, chandeliers and hand held. The chandeliers can be raised or lowered. One remarkable thing at the Globe is that they are using real candles, the first time I have ever seen a production lit by candlelight. It  was a magical experience and helps to make sense of scenes in The Duchess of Malfi which are played in the dark. At the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse they can achieve a real feeling of darkness. The use of candles, the lighting and snuffing of them became part of the whole stage experience. Jonathan Fenson's costumes were period and handsome, though given the candlelight I did wonder whether they should have glittered more (something I heard Kasper Holten touch on when talking about his forthcoming production of Cavalli's L'Ormindo in the theatre). There were of course no sets, just the fixed but flexible screen at the rear of the stage. Though there were some handsome props, as well as some nice touches such as the Duchess's lady in waiting, Cariola, putting coals into a warming pan.

One important factor with the King's Men moving indoors to Blackfriars was the ability to use quieter instruments and subtler musical effects. It is thought that Shakespeare's The Tempest with its songs and musical effects was written for indoors. For The Duchess of Malfi we had four musicians.  Tom Foster,  the musical director, on harpsichord  and organ, Emilia Benjamin on bass viol, Sharon Lindo on violin and recorders,  and Benjamin Narvey on theorbo, lute and cittern.

Claire van Kampen is the composer and Globe Associate for Early Music. The music started before the play proper with a delightful violin sonata. Most of the music sounded as if it was pre-existing but no details were given in the programme. Throughout the play, we had music galore. Not just instrumental entractes and act tunes, but also songs from the actors, which was a nice surprise.

In one lovely scene in part one, the Duchess of Malfi (Gemma Arterton), her lover Antonio (Alex Waldmann) and her lady in waiting Cariola (Sarah Macrae), sang Monteverdi's Zefiro torna in one of the few happy scenes in the play. Other solos were included and, in an imaginative touch, the scene where the Duchess and Antonio are banished from Ancona was done in the context of a religious service with the whole cast singing Byrd's Ave Verum. And the play concluded with an evocative and ceremonious but lively dance (choreography by Sian Williams) for all the characters both living and dead.

And what of the play? Dominic Dromgoole's production made very effective use of the whole theatre and  many scenes were magical. The closeness of the audience to the actors made for a high degee of intimacy. But Dromgoole diffused some of this with humour. This was the funniest Duchess of Malfi that I have ever seen, with lots of little asides. Even James Garnon's Cardinal had his wry asides.

Gemma Arterton was ravishingly lovely and quite magical kin the title role, but she did not quite wrench hearts as some. This was emblematic of the whole production,  it was a magical exploration of the Jacobean playhouse with some ravishing effects but it simply did not wrench the heart or mine the dark intensity in the play. But I suspect that will come, there are plenty more plays in the season as well as concerts as well as an opera!  The opening season includes The Knight of the Burning Pestle and The Malcontent, plus Eileen Atkins one-woman show as Ellen Terry.

As I have mentioned, Kasper Holten is directing Cavalli's L'Ormindo which is a collaboration between the Globe and the Royal Opera House. Christian Curmyn conducts, with a cast including Ed Lyons, James Laing, Joelle Harvey, Ashley Riches, Samuel Boden, Harry Nicoll and Susanna Hurrell. There is also series of candle-lit concerts: further information from the Globe website.


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