A LETTER FROM LONDON: The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse Opens and Spending an Evening With Stephen Ward

By Ruth Leon
February 9, 2014

The monthly missive from Across the Pond introduces readers to the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse and Stephen Ward, Andrew Lloyd Webber's newest musical.

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London has a new theatre and it's a beauty; and there's a story attached to it. After the Second World War a young G.I. from Chicago landed in England for the first time. He asked his cab driver to take him to "Shakespeare's theatre," and couldn't believe it when he was told that Shakespeare's Globe, on the South Bank of the Thames, had disappeared without trace. He was horrified. How could the British not care about the building where their greatest playwright had premiered his work? He searched for traces of the original playhouse in the face of tremendous opposition from the local council, archeological authorities and even his fellow actors. None surfaced. He returned to the United States, but was blacklisted in the early '50s for his left-wing politics and decided to make his permanent home in the United Kingdom, where he became a beloved working actor — on-stage, in film and on television.

His obsession with Shakespeare's theatre never diminished, though. He married; had three daughters, one of whom, Zoë Wanamaker, is one of our best and busiest actors; and continued to agitate for a new Shakespeare theatre. It is largely due to his efforts that the beautiful Shakespeare's Globe — as exact a replica of the original 16th-century theatre that Shakespeare himself built — was finally opened by Zoë in 1997, tragically, after her father's premature death from cancer. Sam Wanamaker was one of theatre's true heroes; all the designs and decisions that went into the building of the Globe and, crucially, the fund-raising, were his. Shakespeare's Globe simply would never have happened without him. He poured not only his time and talent into it, but also his own money, earned from his life as a successful actor.

On a personal note, I think my life in the theatre would not have happened if I hadn't chanced to be taken, as a small girl, to see the greatest production of Othello staged in my lifetime. More than 50 years later I remember everything about that afternoon. Someone had given my mother a pair of matinée tickets to the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon and she took the day off work to take me. Stratford was still rural then and it was a beautiful sunny summer's day when we took the train to the countryside. The theatre was on the banks of the River Avon and most of the buildings were exactly as they would have been in Shakespeare's time.

The title role was played by the great African-American actor and singer Paul Robeson, with a voice that rolled over the audience like treacle, blanketing us with his warmth. Desdemona was Mary Ure, a tiny blonde, so little next to Robeson that it looked as though he could put her in the pocket of his brocade robe. Bianca was a young girl with red hair whom I later learned was called Vanessa Redgrave and Iago was Sam Wanamaker. They say you never forget your first and my first Iago was the best. By the time Desdemona was well and truly dead I was in love, not with the hero, Othello, but with the villain, Iago. Well, I was only ten.

I never met Sam Wanamaker but I have loved him ever since for his tenacity and his passion, as an actor and as a campaigner for what he, an American, knew we Brits needed long before we did. So, it is with considerable pleasure that I report that the theatre named for him, the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, the new indoor theatre at the Globe, is a triumph worthy of him.

The designs for the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse were based on some drawings that fell out of a book in the '60s at Worcester College, Oxford University. They were quickly discovered to be contemporaneous impressions of a Jacobean indoor theatre, which was never built. What you see when you enter this magical space came from these drawings. Timbered, tiny, with just 340 seats surrounding a raised stage on three sides, and three levels, pit, lower and upper, with a musicians' gallery, and carved light wooden pillars holding up the painted ceiling. One word of warning when you're booking your seats — and you should, now — is to try to get a seat in the back row of whatever section your seats are in, because, although the benches are upholstered and therefore more comfortable than the Globe's plain benches, they still don't have backs and that can get tiring during a long play. But that's my only problem with this gorgeous space.

The only lighting is candles, and the smell of candlewax as the large candelabras move up and down to suggest daylight, nightntime, privacy, and everything in between is intoxicating. This is how it was done in Shakespeare's time. We know this because there was an indoor auditorium not far away called the Blackfriars, which was originally the refectory of the Black Friars monastery. The Blackfriars was used by Shakespeare's company, by then called The King's Men, as a winter space for when the light or weather was insufficient or inclement to perform outside at the Globe. That is how the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse will be used, too, all year round for plays and musical events even when an outdoor space is impractical.

They started this week with that goriest of all Jacobean tragedies, The Duchess of Malfi, starring British film and television actor, Gemma Arterton. In this atmospheric setting, with the slight smell of candlewax enhancing the Jacobean mood, you can believe the ill-fated Duchess, secretly married to her steward, does manage to fool her two mad brothers — one a randy Cardinal, the other an incestuous Duke — that she is still a grieving widow long after she's borne three children. Their vengeance (and I've never really understood why they're so cross with her) is terrible and bloody, and the new theatre provides all you could wish by way of creepiness.

The new Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Stephen Ward is a sort of chamber opera about a recent British sex scandal — the time when the Government of Harold Macmillan was brought down by a Cabinet Minister, John Profumo, who lied to the House of Commons about his affair with Christine Keeler. Keeler was a good-time girl who was almost but not quite a prostitute, and this was on the cusp of the Swinging Sixties and at the height of the Cold War. The whole business might well have blown over if she hadn't also been sleeping with an attaché at the Russian Embassy at the same time.

The catalyst for all this mayhem was Stephen Ward, osteopath to the rich, famous and aristocratic, who kept his social status by introducing influential men to working girls. He was a talented artist and a brilliant osteopath and, in an effort to distract public and newspaper attention from their own less-than-salubrious behaviors, the Establishment figures whose confidant he had been threw him to the wolves of Fleet St. as their handpicked scapegoat. He committed suicide while still on trial for living off immoral earnings. Clearly Lloyd Webber and his co-writers, Christopher Hampton and lyricist Don Black, feel the trial itself and the attempt to hide the Establishment's misdeeds is a great miscarriage of justice.

It's all rather sordid — not Stephen Ward the musical, but the real story itself, and inevitably, no matter how well they do it — and Richard Eyre has directed it impeccably and Alexander Hanson gives an award-worthy performance in the title role, smooth, silky and beautifully sung — you come away feeling somewhat sullied by spending an evening in the company of all of them.

Josie Rourke, new artistic director of the Donmar, has played a blinder with her new modern-dress production of Shakespeare's Coriolanus starring Tom Hiddleston. A stunningly simple set by Lucy Osborne and a supporting cast to die for, this is a thoroughly satisfying evening and the first Coriolanus since Corin Redgrave's that makes dramatic and emotional sense.

(Ruth Leon is a London and New York City arts writer and critic whose work has been seen in Playbill magazine and other publications.)

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