Until a horrendous self-inflicted diary muddle which forced me to give away my Sunday matinee ticket to someone else, I had been looking forward for months to seeing Gemma Arterton in The Duchess of Malfi in the new indoor Sam Wanamaker Theatre at Shakespeare's Globe.
When the appointed Sunday afternoon came, I had to be elsewhere, but I finally made it to the new theatre in the evening to see Eileen Atkins in her one-woman show. There's some fascinating material in the programme about the way this new theatre took shape, a decade and a half after its brick shell was erected as part of the original Globe construction project. Only when lots more money had been raised and the space was no longer needed for rehearsals could Sam Wanamaker's original concept of an indoor theatre take shape after long and detailed research and discussion between scholars, architects and creative performers.
While most of the lighting comes from around 100 beeswax candles, there are a couple of spotlights hidden in the painted ceiling, and they were in use for the first time last night. The seating is on wooden benches, padded only with a thin strip of hessian, and the galleries are not built for anyone with mobility problems. While anyone who stands in the outdoor Globe theatre pays £5 and has a better view of the performances than seated spectators, here it's more like a conventional theatre. Standing places cost £10 and are right at the back of the upper gallery, with a fairly restricted view. The place to be seated is undoubtedly in the pit, despite the risk of an occasional drip of beeswax from above. The theatre holds something over 300, and it seems to me a brilliant and quite unique creation. Inevitably, as the programme explains, it's a compromise between a lot of competing demands. Should it be a recreation of the kind of indoor theatre that Shakespeare knew, such as the one at Blackfriars? Should it follow the 1660s plans discovered in the library of Worcester College, Oxford? How many concessions should be made to the expectations of a modern audience to see a show in relative comfort? Later in this first season there will be opera and a variety of performances and music which will explore more fully what the new space is good for.
It will no doubt take several years before the shiny newness of the building gives way to a lived-in familiarity, as it has with the outdoor theatre, where the oak pillars are now starting to weather nicely. The great thing about the Globe from the start under Mark Rylance and now under Dominic Dromgoole, has been the way it has always taken risks. There's always been a streak of eccentric madness in that place. The Sam Wanamaker Theatre is another mad risk, and I'm certain it will pay off.