Just as the Royal Shakespeare Company at its Stratford-upon-Avon HQ has the Swan, a complementary theatre to the mainhouse Royal Shakespeare Theatre that affords the company the chance to explore the work of Shakespeare's contemporaries in a more intimate setting, Shakespeare's Globe on London's South Bank has now added the stunning new Sam Wanamaker Playhouse to offer a similar opportunity.
It's a bit like a miniature Swan, but it is also one of the most heartstoppingly beautiful, most romantically executed doll's house of a theatre I've ever been in. And although I heard reports of extreme discomfort before I went there, this seems to have been greatly exaggerated; although only rear rows have back support, the benches are at least generously cushioned (unlike in the main Globe).
Based on Blackfriars Theatre, an indoor playhouse that was created in a restored medieval hall in 1596 and where Shakespeare's company the King's Men performed from 1609 to give them a winter home while they continued to use the Globe in the summer months, it now lets the modern Globe do the same thing. But it also allows even richer historical assimilations and symmetries. Francis Beaumont's wonderfully titled The Knight of the Burning Pestle is thought to have been written for and first performed in 1607 at the Blackfriars Theatre by the Children of the Queen's Revels, a company of child actors.
Now, over 400 years later, this rich, teaming spectacle of city life - apparently "begot and borne" in just eight days - is back at a modern version of the same Blackfriars Theatre, and what vivid and inspiring fun it provides. With the action breaking the fourth wall from the beginning as a couple of lively theatregoers (a grocer and his wife, played by Phil Daniels and Pauline McLynn) interrupt what's happening onstage to suggest a part for their apprentice Rafe (Matthew Needham) in it, the play regularly spills into and around the auditorium. As its director Adele Thomas asserts in a programme note, the play is "the perfect play to put on in the first season, because it allows us to test-drive the theatre itself. It revels in the theatre architecture, using every available entrance, exit and trapdoor."
That's only part of the fun - that grocer and wife also test the patience of the actors as they talk over them and noisily snack on food. It's just like seeing a performance of Dirty Dancing. And the production, which is full of other metatheatre jokes, sometimes feels a bit like Monty Python's Spamalot. It's no surprise to read the director stating in the programme, "I can't imagine Monty Python and the Holy Grail would have existed without The Knight of the Burning Pestle."
Here's The Globe not just excavating the theatrical past, but making it alive for today. As past and present collide, and the play within the play collides with a chaotic new one being improvised before us, it produces great comic moments. It turns an evening of historic fun into one to treasure now.
"the play seems to me funnier in theory than in practice and the production, which last three hours and is punctuated by four “interludes”, is in danger of flogging an in-joke to death..."
Paul Taylor for The Independent
"This boisterous production brings Francis Beaumont's 1607 burlesque of citizen drama and chivalric romance to life..."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"This 1607 satire by Francis Beaumont is a delightful piece about audience interaction"
Fiona Mountford for The Evening Standard