A Little Theatre in Candlelight (The Duchess of Malfi and The Knight of the Burning Pestle – 11th January 2014 to 30th March 2014)


(Photo shows Alex Waldmann as Jasper and Paul Rider as Old Merrythought in The Knight of the Burning Pestle. Photo by Alastair Muir)

I would say that a visit to the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is a delightful experience. Without doubt, it is a beautiful little theatre, with its oak interior and the candelabra hanging over the stage. What is particularly special about the space is that there is a feeling of intimacy and the audience is positioned so they look across at each other. As the space is so alluring, the challenge might be to engage the audience in the performance, rather than the audience feeling that it is the visit to the space which is the main attraction.

It’s true that some views are a little problematic and sitting on the benches can at times be uncomfortable. Having said this, I really like some of the Pit seats. They are not as expensive as some of the Lower Gallery seats, and some of them have a very nice view, especially those on row D.

The theatre opened in January with a production of John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi and this has been followed by Francis Beaumont’s The Knight of the Burning Pestle. Both plays were very good choices in which to show off the space and experiment with how candlelight can be used to light the productions.

The Duchess of Malfi seemed to tick all the boxes in terms of how you might use the theatre in its historical context. There were candles shinning on the Duchess’s dress to make the jewels sparkle as they caught the light, a scene played in the dark, and the impression of daylight through opening shutters at the back of both upper and lower galleries. There was also a sense of the actors making the most of the whole theatre space, rather than just using the stage itself. The play opens with a banquet taking place in the inner stage. Characters entered onto the stage through the Pit, spoke lines from the upper balcony, and used the outer space behind the galleries to great effect. The use of the Upper Gallery for the echo scenes was particularly successful. There was music and song, and the traditional Globe dance at the end.

I felt that The Duchess of Malfi was a very good production of one of my favourite plays which explores psychological torture. David Dawson gave a stellar performance as Ferdinand. He brought a mixture of humour and horror to the role and as he grew in confidence directed lines at the audience and was successful in creating some connection between audience and space. Gemma Arterton, as the Duchess, did a good job, but she could be a little bit too fragile at times, and embraced her death with a serenity that in many ways took away any sense of a tragedy taking place. In a q and a session (16th February), Arterton talked about how at the moment she seduced Antonio (Alex Waldmann) she was at the same time flirting with the audience. I thought this was a nice touch, but a little too subtle to have a great effect. Alex Waldmann was excellent as Antonio and it was really easy to believe that he really loved the Duchess. Though the Duchess seemed to have the upper hand in most of their life, and it felt like he was always the steward, he was the master in the bedroom, and a good father to the children. Waldmann did very well with a part that can be rather limited, and gave Antonio a presence that made his death feel like a waste. There were some lovely moments of stage business as well, such as the body of the dead Duchess brushing against Antonio as he enters for his next scene.

I just felt that the production didn’t go far enough in its exploration of the play, and in moving away from obvious types. It felt it was directed for the space, rather than an opportunity to explore some of the texture and complexity of the play. For example, I would have liked to have seen Waldmann play Bosola, I think it would have been interesting for him to play that conflicted menace and I think a bold move to have an actor known for his handsome looks playing the malcontent in this way.

What The Knight of the Burning Pestle does is respond to the very closely directed Duchess of Malfi and show how the space could be opened up further and how the audience could be drawn into a performance. It interweaves several narratives, and experiments with types. What I liked was the way it explored metatheatre and also attempted to involve the audience, which I enjoyed enormously.

There is an entertaining pre-show, with the two apprentices lighting the candles, avoiding being hit by a candelabra and setting themselves alight. The play begins with the citizen (the grocer played by Phil Daniels), his wife (Pauline McLynn), and  their apprentice Rafe (Matthew Needham), entering the auditorium and taking their seats at the front of the Pit. Like the audience that had just entered they are a little in awe of the space. The citizens insist that Rafe gets a part in the play. Throughout the play they chatter, hand out grapes and constantly interrupt the action. The citizen’s wife watches the play as if it she believes the events are truly happening. The other actors respond to this heckling with annoyance which becomes extremely funny.

The play we believe that we are seeing is  The London Merchant, but it suddenly becomes a romance called The Knight of the Burning Pestle because the citizens want to make Rafe’s part more interesting. There are echoes of the Mystery Plays here, and the guilds putting on the plays. There is a wonderful child-like quality in Needham’s portrayal, and he seems to grow and become the most competent actor at the end of the play.

Alex Waldmann plays the young lover, Jasper, as an over the top actor. He over exaggerates the actions making visual every metaphor and at one point forgets his lines, and exits with a claptrap, which worked beautifully on the occasions I have seen the production. It is a lovely performance as an over eager and arrogant actor, and Jasper’s frustration with the citizens interrupting him is  extremely humorous. There is a little bit of an irony here and I was thinking of the times when Waldmann was at the Royal Shakespeare Company and the young women in the audience would giggle at the wrestling scene in As You Like It, and phones would go off at points interrupting the performance, but the actor has to keep going.

There are actually three main narrative strands in The Knight of the Burning Pestle, the city comedy, the romance and the frame of the story of the citizens and their apprentice, Rafe. The play becomes at its most interesting when the narratives collide into each other and suddenly snatches of the The London Merchant end up in The Knight of the Burning Pestle. Indeed, the Knight of the Burning Pestle tends to gather characters from The London Merchant as it progresses. The play also references other Elizabethan and Jacobean plays. There are echoes of Romeo and Juliet, Banquo’s ghost in Macbeth and Henry IV part 2.

There were some delightful moments, such as Mr Merrythought  (Paul Rider), who felt like an exaggerated version of Falstaff, and became more repulsive as he becomes ridiculously merry. Whatever is happening around him, he insists on singing and dancing, and at one point embraces a lady in the audience. His message seemed to be very positive and optimistic, but there is something grotesque about it as well. The singing really gets on his wife’s (Hannah McPake) nerves, but it becomes infectious. It is very entertaining when his younger son, Michael (Giles Cooper), starts to copy his father and starts dancing as well.

When I saw the production on the first Sunday of Previews, Needham had hurt his knee and he couldn’t take part in the fight scenes. This unfortunate accident worked so well in the context of the play, because there he was stood at the side of the stage observing the action as other characters commented on what should have happened and at one point Waldmann’s Jasper ran round the side of the Lower Gallery giving the impression he was in mortal conflict, but he was having a fight with himself.

I have found this production to be extremely satisfying, and have laughed a lot when I have seen it. It runs until 30th March so well worth a visit.

I felt that the theatre could do some very exciting things with the space in the future. The recently announced transfer of two Globe plays to the Sam Wanamaker will be an interesting experiment. As an audience member, you’re not experiencing the theatre as a theatre was in Jacobean times, it is akin to a visit to a heritage site. You are asked to leave coats in the cloakroom, because they interfere with the air conditioning. You are constantly reminded to switch off your phone by users in Sam Wanamaker tabards, and you are told not to take photos. You walk out of the theatre and the gift shop is close by. There’s clearly cameras in the theatre because the play can be seen on monitors, and just outside I click into the wi-fi and look up the cast list. I always found this kind of  intrusion into the Globe space rather amusing, and again at the Sam Wanamaker playhouse, you are constantly being reminded that you are in a contemporary space. I can’t help feel that my ticket price includes the experience of being in the space as much as the performance – though the two are intertwined I know.

What happens when we have experienced the experience as such? Will we continue to see lots of plays in candlelight? I’d like to see new writing in the space, and maybe something not lit with candles. After The Knight of the Burning Pestle, I think a production could be bolder in working with the audience and playing against type. It is an interesting studio space in which to experiment in.

I look forward to seeing what happens in the future.

Alex Waldmann and Gemma Artherton  in Duchess

(Alex Waldmann as Antonio and Gemma Artherton as the Duchess in The Duchess of Malfi)

Further Information

Duchess of Malfi Storify page

The Knight of the Burning Pestle Storify Page

As Yet Unnamed London Podcast (The Knight of the Burning Pestle)

As Yet unnamed London Podcast (Duchess of Malfi)

Cast Includes:

  • The Duchess of Malfi Gemma Arterton.
  • The Cardinal James Garnon.
  • Silvio Giles Cooper.
  • Ferdinand David Dawson.
  • Castruccio/ Doctor John Dougall.
  • Bosola Sean Gilder.
  • Julia Denise Gough.
  • Cariola Sarah MacRae.
  • Antonio Alex Waldmann