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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
THE KNIGHT OF THE BURNING PESTLE
at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

CREATURE COMFORTS
By ED WILSON

  Paul Ryder and Samuel Hargreaves/ Ph: Alastair Muir

One of the glories of the English-speaking theatre in recent years has been the reconstructed Globe on London’s South Bank. An open-air theatre with a thatched roof, built with authentic materials, it offers as well as anything could, the experience of seeing the plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries performed as they were originally. The single person most responsible for the Globe was an indefatigable actor, Sam Wanamaker, who devoted the final years of his life to seeing that the dream of the theatre would finally be realized.
 
After the completion of the globe the next goal of its managers was to build next to it a much smaller, indoor theatre to resemble the Blackfriars, a Jacobean theatre on the north side of the Thames River where the later plays of Shakespeare and his colleagues were performed in the inclement winter months when the Globe was closed. The question was, what should this theatre look like? The Blackfriars itself was constructed inside a large monastic hall with a vaulted roof, but no one knew exactly how the audience was seated. Some 50 years ago, quite accidentally, drawings were discovered, attributed to a Jacobean architect, John Webb, with precise plans for seating in small indoor theatre of the kind being considered. For a number of years those responsible for planning the new structure went back and forth between a conjectural plan of the Blackfriars and the detailed plans by Webb. Finally the decision was made to go with the latter, and after a number of delays the building, carefully wrought and beautifully constructed, was recently completed. Appropriately, it was named the Wanamaker.
 
Public performances began at the start of the year. The first production was a tragedy, The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster, and the second, a comic piece, The Knight of the Burning Pestle by Francis Beaumont, both written in the early Jacobean era. So what is this theatre like, this attempt to duplicate theatre-going of a bygone day? Sadly, extremely disappointing. In some respects, those responsible acknowledged the passage of time, introducing air conditioning, for example. But when it came to audience seating they decided to follow Webb’s specifications to the letter. The result is short rows of narrow backless benches with small, thin cushions and no handrails of any kind. The day I attended, a number of elderly people were reaching out to others for help, some stumbling along the way. I sat at the end of a bench next to a large man who took up all of his own cushion and a good part of mine, with the result that a portion of my posterior was suspended in mid-air.
 
Obviously this passion for authenticity by the planners overrode everything else. And one can only ask, what were they thinking? The Blackfriars was 400 years ago. People today live much longer than they did then, they are much taller, and rightly or wrongly, they like their creature comforts. If those in charge reduce the number of seats and make them slightly more comfortable, they will be able to get fewer people into the auditorium. However, I see no alternative for them but to gird up their loins and go back to the drawing board.
 
As for the play I saw, The Knight of the Burning Pestle, it is a farcical pastiche that operates on three levels. On one level it is a traditional drama of the period with young men vying for the hand of a maid. On a second level it is a radical departure for the period – audience members (a grocer and his wife) interrupt the play and climb on stage to demand that they see a play depicting people like themselves, insisting that the person should be their apprentice, Rafe. And on the third level, there is the play Rafe is in, a sort of Don Quixote adventure. It is a difficult play to direct. For starters, it is important to give each of the three threads its own style and identity. Unfortunately the director, Adele Thomas, has not found the key but has, I fear, opted to treat the entire enterprise as slapstick buffoonery.
 
The tip-off comes even before the play begins. It has become a hallmark, first at the Globe and now at the Wanamaker, to lower chandeliers of real candles from the ceiling, which are lit by hand, then raised to serve as lighting for the performance. With the Globe company, recently on tour with Twelfth Night and Richard III, this task was performed with efficiency and purpose. Here, however, two clownish actors come on stage and with a loud honk ask that the chandeliers be lowered, whereat there follows a lengthy succession of missteps – chandeliers hitting the men, pratfalls and the like. This, unfortunately, sets the tone for performance to follow: broad comedy from start to finish. Audience members laughed regularly when they were cued by the actors, which was often, but any real delineation among the various threads was lost in a blur of comic business.
 
This is just one production, however, and it is now closed. There will be many more productions, doubtless excellent ones, which will prove the merit of the enterprise. What will happen to those hard, narrow, backless benches is another matter.

 


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