London’s Globe Theater Adds A Jacobean Playhouse

Shakespeare's theater gets a sister space

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Shakespeare's Globe Theater

Stage of the new Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare's Globe in London

It was Shakespeare who wrote that “all the world’s a stage,” but there are times when an actual stage — and theater — are in demand.

Nearly 17 years after Shakespeare’s Globe Theater launched in London, it has opened a sister theater, called the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, modeled after the indoor stages of the Jacobean era. The Globe is one of the U.K’s leading theaters and attractions, and the new theater — named for the late American actor and director, who also founded the Globe — is located right next door on London’s south bank. But unlike the Globe, the Jacobean-style space is indoors and will stage shows throughout the winter, complementing the theater’s outdoor summer program and allowing for year round presentations.

Though the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is brand new, its opening has long been a part of the overall plan for the Globe. When the Globe opened in 1997, after three decades of planning and construction, an empty section was designated specifically for a future Jacobean theater. The Globe no longer receives public funding, but through contributions from audience members, various trusts and Globe patrons, the new theater has at last been completed.

Yet while the Globe was built as a replica of the exact theater that Shakespeare once staged his most famous works on, the newly built space is more of a composite of theaters from the Jacobean time, designed through thorough research into the time period. Oliver Heywood, an architect at Allies & Morrison who worked on the new playhouse, says, “one of the biggest challenges was that there aren’t any surviving Jacobean theaters anywhere in the country.” Farah Karim-Cooper, head of higher education and research at the Globe and chair of the architecture research group, who helped lead the study into Jacobean theaters, describes the new space as “an archetype rather than a [specific] reproduction.”

The compact theater seats just 340 people, who will all be intimately packed into two tiered galleries and a pit seating area. The wooden room features oak pillars, with much of the wood sourced from France. The theater’s ceiling boasts and intricate celestial painting, based on a room at Scotland’s Cullen House, built in 1600.

The stage is lit almost entirely by candles, many atop a series of chandeliers that can be raised or lowered to change the effect. With dozens of open flames in the small, wooden theater, Neil Constable, the Globe’s executive director, jokes that they’ve had to develop “a very good candle management strategy.” (They also have a very modern, yet cleverly concealed, ventilation system.) The planning has paid off, as the warm glow made by the candles helps to create what Constable calls a “jewel-box of an intimate space.”

The theater’s inaugural show is John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, starring Gemma Arterton of Quantum of Solace fame and directed by Dominic Dromgoole, the Globe’s artistic director. Duchess began its run on Jan. 9 and plays until Feb. 16. The rest of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse season will include a mix of drama, opera and exclusive concerts — but no Shakespeare productions.

While Dromgoole says it’s likely that a Shakespeare play will one day be staged in the new theater, for now he’s focused on how the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse can expand what the Globe offers. “It feels like we’ve opened a portal,” explains Dromgoole. “It’s very, very different from any other space – and we’re just finding out about all of it.”