Plot me no plots

The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, from What's On Stage
The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, from What’s On Stage

On Saturday I went to the new Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, part of the Shakespeare’s Globe complex on London’s south bank. The theatre is an approximation of what an indoor theatre of the Jacobean theatre would have looked like, based on idealised plans for a theatre that date from the 1660s and which were only discovered in the 1960s. In Shakespeare’s time there were both open-air and closed theatres. We’re all familiar with the Globe, with the round building open to the elements, a central pit for the groundlings with protruding stage, and galleries around the edge. The indoor Blackfriars theatre, which was used first by child companies taken from cathedral schools, and later by the King’s Men (for who Shakespeare wrote) was converted from the refectory of a former monastery and put on performances during the winter months.

The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse recreates the experience with great technical skill and sympathetic imagination. It is lit by candlelight – six chandeliers, plus candles around the inner perimeter – by window light (which is how things were in the Jacobean theatre) and some underseat lighting (which is a twenty-first century blessing). There is seating for around 300, with a small pit (seated) with gallery behind it, and an upper gallery. The stage juts out into this space, with a musicians’ gallery above. There are trapdoors above and below, stage entrances to the sides and rear, and above it all a beautifully painted ceiling. Though the notes in the programmes record the agonised debates over authenticity, it looks right. Certainly the cramped seating gives the theatregoer a keen sense of Jacobean discomfort. The only real downside is the Globe’s mean refusal to allow any photography, even when the theatre is empty.

The play I saw was The Knight of the Burning Pestle, written by Francis Beaumont and first performed around 1607. It has long been a favourite, since I saw the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production back in 1981, using the stage settings left over from the RSC’s legendary production of Nicholas Nickelby, and starring the then unknown Timothy Spall as Rafe, the grocer’s apprentice (he went on to name his son after the role, who is now the actor Rafe Spall).

The play is distinguished by a startling avant garde coup. It starts off by having the Chorus come on and announce that we are to see a play entitled The London Merchant. At this news, a grocer (The Citizen) and his wife who have been sitting in the audience get up and complain that they never see the lives of the common city folk properly celebrated on the stage. So they volunteer that their apprentice, Rafe (played by Matthew Needham), should join the company and experience adventures according to their directions. Thus we see what tries to be a conventional Jacobean drama about an heiress torn between two suitors rudely interrupted by Rafe pretending to be a knight (with the burning pestle as symbol of his trade) in a series of scenes that having nothing to do with the main action, though inevitably the two plots find that they have to converge and the actors gradually accommodate themselves to the bizarre interventions of Rafe and his companions, all the while being cheered on by the Citizen and Wife (played by the productions two star names, Phil Daniels and Pauline McLynn). “Plot me no plots” cries the Citizen, when one of actors complains that his stage directions have nothing to do with the action of their play. It’s a play that admits its plot has no meaning. Spectacle, action and the demands of the audience are all.

The bold imagination on display here makes the play feel post-modern before there was even a modern to be post to. Its deconstructive spirit extend to assorted parodies of Jacobean theatrical conventions, from supposedly dead people springing out of coffins (surely a spoof on Romeo and Juliet), to the ostensibly dead Rafe (he has an arrow through his head) giving a speech that apes that given by the ghost in Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy (“When I was mortal, this my costive corpse / Did lap up figs and raisins in the Strand”). However, its purpose is never satirical. Beaumont may have set out to mock stage conventions alongside the aspirations of the rising commercial class, but he clearly liked his theatre too much to do anything other that celebrate its diversity and heritage through parody, while his heartening sympathy towards Citizen, Wife and Rafe is free of any snobbery. It is simply a happy play.

It’s also a very long play (over three hours), but the time never dragged, and if the action occasionally strayed into incoherence, there was plenty of music and song to enjoy. The character Merrythought, a mixture of Falstaff and the Green Man, sings more than he speaks, and the multi-instrumental occupants of the musicians’ gallery took us beyond pastiche to a spirited and infectious celebration. I have see a few too many Elizabeth and Jacobean plays where the company’s attempt to portray jollity embarrassed more than it entertained, but here – as with the theatre itself – they got the balance just about right.

All that said, it’s an odd thing to build a facsimile theatre and to put on productions as though we were in the seventeenth century rather than the twenty-first. It reeks a little of sentimental historicisation, of a fear of the modern in drama, or the modern overall. The 1981 production of The Knight of the Burning Pestle that I saw made this point all too clearly, by having the start of the production seem like a portentous, doom-laden undertaking, which the Citizen and his Wife (in modern dress, as I recall) overturned with their demand for traditional entertainment of the kind that they could understand. The Globe’s production shies away from any such irony. Francis Beaumont would have been disappointed – but then would have gone along with the game. It’s that sort of play.


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