Report | Behind the Scenes at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse
17 Aug 2016
Last month, London Society members had an exclusive tour of the Globe's Jacobean theatre, the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. Project Architect, Oliver Heywood of Allies and Morrison explained the challenges of authentically constructing an archetypal indoor Jacobean theatre within a shell built in the mid 1990s. Abi Spooner reports on the visit:
Backstage theatre tours are always fascinating, and this was one with a difference. Oliver Heywood of Allies and Morrison, who led the project to build a Jacobean theatre, delivered so many fascinating angles way beyond the theatrical.
When the reconstructed Globe was built at the end of the last century, architects allowed for an indoor theatre according to Inigo Jones’s plans. It turned out, when this project started years later, that these original plans were actually designed by John Webb, his protege in 1668 - not a Jacobean! Each different element of the playhouse is based on architecture of the period - the arcades from the Bodleian, a Scottish painted ceiling destroyed by fire, and the shape of the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford.
The auditorium of this tiny playhouse is stunning: lit by candlelight (though Heywood pointed out traps in the ceiling which allow electric stage lights through), it fosters an intimate relationship between performers and audience. The workmanship of the all-wood stage and balconies, all of green oak, held together with pegs and nails, and the insight into how much a modern architect could influence these traditional skills (provided by Peter McCurdy) lent a completely new respect for the challenges of construction. Built off site, the freestanding timber frame was erected in just days once it arrived.
We were able to roam all across the playhouse, including backstage and right up into the vault above the building. This space is used as a rehearsal room but is also home to the contraption to fly actors in from the ceiling. It’s also the location for a complex air conditioning and venting system - and Heywood supplied insightful descriptions of how the construction was achieved in partnership with actors, architects, craftsmen - and the health and safety executive.
The tour was fascinating - and a trigger to buy tickets for Othello next year to experience how it feels as an audience member.