Catherine Love: Location, Location, Location
As the Globe opens its new indoor Jacobean playhouse, Catherine Love ponders the importance of the spaces where we watch theatre
Of the many things I'm looking forward to this week, getting my first glimpse of the Globe's new candlelit space is fairly near the top of the list. I find myself oddly intrigued by the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, the Globe's painstaking recreation of an indoor Jacobean theatre. The existing open-air amphitheatre might boast the unpredictability of the elements and the raucous buzz of the groundlings, but the idea of verse spoken under the flickering glow of candles has a certain romantic, bewitching appeal.
The new space also promises an intimacy that the Globe does not usually lend itself to, instead working more effectively as a stage for the epic or rowdily comedic. Compared with the Globe's capacity of 1,500, the Playhouse can hold just 340, all seated in the same dim light as the performers on stage. It is perhaps no coincidence that Jacobean drama is noted for its dark themes; an enclosed, gloomy space invites claustrophobic, shadowy drama. The choice of opening production – Webster's bloody Duchess of Malfi – offers a prime example.
The space of performance is no small consideration in receiving a piece of theatre, which is why I've always thought of the "site-specific" label as something of a misnomer. All theatre is in dialogue with its site, whether consciously or not. The building or outdoor space in which we encounter any piece of theatre is our first point of contact with it, potentially offering clues about its style, its themes, its politics. I've often talked to friends in theatre about how the venue of a show can imprint itself onto readings of it. Were a fascist play to be put on by the National Theatre, for instance, it's a fairly safe bet that the staging would be interpreted as a critique of the work rather than an endorsement of its beliefs.
But as fascinating as it is to ponder the expectations and influences generated by different sites of performance, I'm also interested in something far less cerebral about the spaces in which we gather to watch theatre. There is a feeling that certain venues produce – atmosphere feels like a bland and inadequate word to describe it – which can have as much of an emotional sway as the theatre itself. I automatically think of the gloomy railway arches of the old Southwark Playhouse or the shabby grandeur of Battersea Arts Centre's Grand Hall, but there is something just as impressive about the rich interiors of traditional proscenium arch spaces.
This powerful emotion that theatres are able to provoke in us is something that artist Catherine Ireton is exploring in her current show, what is it about that night? Inspired by her own love of hidden spaces and the workings that lie behind the magic, the show takes audiences through the backstage spaces of an old theatre, playing with music, stories and rituals. Here, the enchantment of the theatre building itself takes the spotlight, possibly prompting audiences to think more deeply about the connection with place that is a central part of the theatrical event.
This is also why the opening of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse sparks a slight thrill of anticipation. The carefully recreated interior and the promise of all those candles offer an attraction, of course, but there is something equally exciting about the possibilities of a new space, how it might delicately reconfigure our experience of the theatre it puts on, and how it might make us as theatregoers feel.