By Jill Lawless
LONDON — Shakespeare’s Globe, the open-air London playhouse that helped win modern audiences over to all-weather outdoor theatergoing, is embracing the great indoors.
The Globe on Tuesday unveiled details of a new indoor venue that will sit alongside the O-shaped Elizabethan-style theater on the banks of the River Thames. Built from 17th-century plans, it will allow audiences to remain warm and dry as they watch candlelit performances of plays by the Bard and his successors — and, its creators hope, cast those classic plays in a new light.
“We’re hoping it will prove as great a revelation as this building has,” said Globe artistic director Dominic Dromgoole, referring to the open-air theater that opened in 1997. “In the simplest terms, it’s called going back to the future.”
The Sam Wanamaker Theatre — named for the late American actor-director who spent decades realizing his dream of rebuilding Shakespeare’s playhouse near its original site — is due to open in January 2014, and will allow the Globe to hold performances year-round for the first time.
Modeled loosely on the long-vanished Blackfriars playhouse where Shakespeare’s company, the King’s Men, performed in winter, the timber-framed space will hold 350 people, in seated galleries and a standing-room pit.
Dromgoole said that in true 17th-century style, it would feature “a lot of people packed tight into a very small space — bulging with humanity.” In another nod to authenticity, the oak-framed, wood-paneled theater will be lit by candles, no small achievement in our safety-conscious times.
Martin White, a leading expert on theater lighting and a consultant to the project, said that with modern safety techniques open flames in a wooden theater can be perfectly safe — and convincing the London Fire Brigade proved remarkably easy.
“I was quite surprised,” he said. “They became really interested in the project. I think they wanted to see live flames lighting a performance in the theater. They became enthusiastic about it, and that is always the best start for everything.”
Dromgoole pointed out that the Globe has a history of getting permission to bend building rules. In the 1990s it became the first thatch-roofed building constructed in London since the Great Fire of 1666. Thatched roofs were banned in London after the fire, which razed much of the medieval city. The new venue is being built based on drawings found at Oxford University’s Worcester College in the 1960s — the earliest surviving plans for an indoor theater. No theater buildings from that era survive, and many questions remain about how they were constructed.
Farah Karim-Cooper, head of the Globe’s architecture research group, said the goal was “to build a theater Shakespeare might recognize,” rather than a reconstruction of any particular venue. Wanamaker, who died in 1993, dreamed of an indoor theater beside the Globe’s outdoor space, and the shell of the venue was built as part of the reconstruction. But financial constraints prevented it from being completed at the same time as the Globe. The company has raised most of the 7.5 million pound ($12 million) cost of the new venue from individuals and charitable trusts.
Shakespeare’s Globe opened amid skepticism — some thought it would be a kitschy tourist trap. It turned out to be a huge success, drawing 1 million visitors a year and winning over audiences and critics with productions that use staging techniques of the past to shed new light on old plays.
The company’s all-male productions of “Richard III” and “Twelfth Night” starring former Globe artistic director Mark Rylance opened this month to glowing reviews in London’s West End after a summer run at the Globe. Dromgoole said the new space would expand the company’s repertoire to include works by Jacobean dramatists who followed Shakespeare, such as Thomas Middleton and John Webster.
What it will reveal about those plays is, for now, a mystery. We’re doing it as an experiment,” Dromgoole said. “We’re doing it as a leap into the unknown.”