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Murder by candlelight at London's new Jacobean theatre

Actress Gemma Arterton performs as the Duchess of Malfi in Shakespear's "The Duchess of Malfi" at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at the Globe T
Actress Gemma Arterton performs as the Duchess of Malfi in Shakespear's "The Duchess of Malfi" at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at the Globe T

By Ben Hirschler

LONDON (Reuters) - London has a new theatre lit entirely by candles, transporting audiences back 400 years to the kind of performances seen on winter nights in Shakespeare's time.

Constructed mainly of oak, the building sits alongside the established open-air Globe theatre on the south bank of the Thames - but it offers a very different experience by replicating an indoor playhouse of the early 17th century.

While the Globe's thatched amphitheatre is breezy and holds more than 1,500 people, the new Sam Wanamaker Playhouse - named after the American actor and director who came up with the idea for both venues - is intimate, with just 340 seats.

Stepping inside is like entering an antique marquetry box, with the flickering candlelight illuminating woodwork and a painted ceiling that make a fine setting for the inward-looking psychological dramas of the Jacobean period.

In many ways the small indoor space is an "anti-Globe," according to artistic director Dominic Dromgoole, whose production of John Webster's dark tragedy "The Duchess of Malfi" opened there on January 9.

Modeled on drawings that fell out of an old book in the library at Worcester College, Oxford, in the 1960s, the new playhouse offers a wintertime option for Dromgoole and his team.

The second venue builds on the outdoor success of the Globe, which has been putting on shows since 1997 and had its first transfer to Broadway in November. Given the British weather, the Globe can only operate from April to October,

The sketches that form the basis for the 7.5 million pounds ($12.4 million) project are the earliest surviving evidence of what an indoor Jacobean theatre would have looked like, although the final building is not a copy of any particular historical venue.

The idea of heading inside in the winter months would have been very familiar to William Shakespeare and his peers - as would the choice of play.

SKULL BENEATH THE SKIN

"The Duchess of Malfi" was first performed by the King's Men acting company to which Shakespeare belonged at a similar indoor theatre across the river at Blackfriars in 1613 or 1614.

It is a tale of corruption, murder and madness that exposes the dark side of human nature, prompting the poet T.S. Eliot famously to describe Webster as a dramatist who "saw the skull beneath the skin".

With a macabre scene of waxwork corpses and a grave-digging semi-werewolf duke, Webster piles on a surreal horror that gains a claustrophobic immediacy in the small candle-lit theatre.

The show burns through dozens of beeswax candles to illuminate the action, some in candelabras and others held by the actors, although a certain amount of artificial electric light does leak in through internal windows in some scenes.

The effect is unique, with the candlelight reflecting off the actors' white neck ruffs and glittering from the golden dress worn by Gemma Arterton - a former Bond girl in the movie "Quantum of Solace" - who plays the doomed duchess.

The play will have its press night on January 15 but the show, which also includes period music, is already getting rave write-ups on Twitter from those who have seen it, with visitors describing the setting as "gorgeous" and "amazing".

Dromgoole is preparing next to present other works from more of Shakespeare's contemporaries - including Francis Beaumont and John Marston - as well as an opera by Francesco Cavalli and several concerts.

Naked flames will be centre-stage in all these shows, a fact that has required careful liaison with health and safety officers - especially as the original Globe theatre burned down 400 years ago when its thatch caught fire during a performance of Shakespeare's "Henry VIII".

($1 = 0.6066 British pounds)

(Editing by Michael Roddy and Andrew Roche)

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