First of all a confession: when the indoor, horse-shoe shaped Sam Wanamaker Playhouse opened within the walls of Shakespeare's Globe in 2014, I went to the opening production of Webster's The Duchess of Malfi -- but have never returned. Until now. It may look like its one of the most delightful theatres in the land, but that's only as long as you don't have to watch a play there.
Frankly, the discomfort levels are far too high and life is far too short. The tightly packed benches have no backrests, unless you are sitting in the back row, and since the auditorium is lit entirely by candlelight, some kind of night vision is required to peer at the shows (not least in the upper gallery, I'm told, where you have to watch through the flickering lights of the candles).
But in the years since, the Wanamaker produced Farinelli and the King that transferred to the West End and where an attempt at recreating the atmosphere was made. I only saw it in town at the Duke of York's, and was sorry I hadn't experienced it in its more authentic environment.
So I steeled myself for a return to the Wanamaker for another Webster play, and subjected myself to the punishing conditions once again (the theatre's chief executive Neil Constable even swapped seats with me in the interval to make it less punishing; you can't fault the venue for trying). Was it all worth the effort? Actually, yes: I don't want to make a habit of it, but there's something spine-tingling (not say spine-twisting) in watching such a brutal, unforgivingly dark play in such dark surrounds and close-up, claustrophobic intimacy and intensity. My fellow critic Andrzej Lukowski has wittily characterised the plot as, in essence, "the classic married-boy-meets-married-girl-and-decides-to-have-both-of-their-spouses-slaughtered-so-they-be-together scenario." I couldn't put it better, so I haven't.
And even if its a bit of a stretch from this plot line to modern parallels with the horrors we're anticipating at the White House, it's certainly a riveting portrait of court politics and how people will do anything to get what they want -- or revenge wrongs done to them.
The body count would do Quentin Tarentino proud, but the escalating horrors occur against a plausible backdrop of shadowy lighting and a superb soundscape.
What the Press Said...
"Webster depicts the Renaissance court as a grinning but hollow death mask and for all its many thrills, that's rather how this production feels, too."
Clare Allfree for The Telegraph
"Director Ann Ryan's candlelit production of John webster's 'The White Devil' at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, is the perfect setting for the play about deceit, treachery and revenge..."
Paul Taylor for The Independent