- The Duchess of Malfi, The Knight of the Burning Pestle, and The Malcontent:Shakespeare’s Globe, January–April 2014
The program essay for the first season of performances at the Sam Wanamaker indoor playhouse asks, “What Might This Theatre Tell Us?” Audiences have waited years to find out, while critics debated the date and provenance of the Worcester College drawings that inspired the new playhouse. This playhouse cannot be a reconstruction, as the Globe aimed to be, for the evidence is too sparse and contested. But an indoor playhouse can interrogate the long-held view that playhouses were primarily auditory, rather than visual, spaces. Watching Webster’s Duchess of Malfi, Fletcher’s Knight of the Burning Pestle, and Marston’s Malcontent in the theater’s opening season reminded me of that, but in more ambivalent and challenging ways than I had expected, after seeing the records of Martin White’s research on the effects of candle- and torchlight in the mock-up indoor playhouse at the University of Bristol. White’s research has been key to lighting in this new theater, but the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse feels like the next level, after the Globe project and the Bristol experiment. What fascinates about White’s work at Bristol is the precision of lighting effects created by the raising and lowering of candelabras and the use of torches and candles. There are similarly startling effects created here, too. But the real attraction for me has been how the combination of architecture, audience, and candlelight emphasize looking and watching in ways that illuminate aspects of these plays.
Of course, it is impossible to know how far visual action was emphasized for an audience in a playhouse like this. For the early moderns, candles provided domestic lighting; for us, they connote history, spookiness, romance. We are unused to peering through the light that candles create from above, as sitters in the upper galleries of the Wanamaker theater are accustomed to doing. If you were used to seeing aristocratic heads on starched white ruffs, as elite audiences of the Blackfriars were, it might not have been as disturbing to see them in Act 1, scene 2, of The Duchess of Malfi as it was for me, for whom those beautifully coiffed and bearded heads on their elaborate white ruffs looked horribly vulnerable. Whatever the effect then, it feels inevitable when writing a review of the [End Page 209] first experiments in this theater that, as in the early days of Shakespeare’s Globe, the audience experience is foregrounded. As audiences become used to the space, this will change; but time will also create new appreciation for the audience’s role in early modern drama, rather than an erasure of it.
The Duchess Of Malfi
The Arden Early Modern Drama edition of The Duchess of Malfi has the ducal presence chamber fill from “one door” in 1.2, while Antonio and Delio enter to comment on the court “at another.”1 This production demonstrates that having the two friends share their court gossip from “above” would be the more meaningful stage direction. The two friends speak from the musicians’ gallery: “You promised me,” Delio (Paul Rider) says to Antonio (Alex Waldmann), “To make me the partaker of the natures / Of some of your great courtiers”(1.2.1–3). Those of us seated at the gallery level are invited to judge these great courtiers as Antonio does; we are told that superficial wit and sociability hide the “perverse and turbulent nature” (l. 87) of the Duke (David Dawson) and the corruption of his brother Cardinal (James Garnon), while the Duchess (Gemma Arterton) “stains the time past, lights the time to come” (l. 127) with her virtue and beauty. Setting us up as judges of these figures created a sense that we in the upper gallery enjoyed a greater critical distance than those in the lower galleries and pit. On several occasions, laughter in sympathy with characters’ remarks could be heard below while we above remained silent. Laughter at moments of potential awkwardness or unintended comedy—for example, when Bosola (Sean Gilder) exclaims, “Oh, she’s gone again” (4.2...