John Williams and friends at Sam Wanamaker Theatre

Helen Wallace enjoys a concert at London's replica Jacobean Playhouse


How apt that in this glowing jewel box of a 340-seat Jacobean-style theatre I should find myself listening to the quietest of all instruments: the lute. Based on some drawings of a Jacobean Theatre found at Worcester College, the Sam Wanamaker Theatre, unlike its big sister Globe, is a re-imagining of a generalised early 16th-century indoor theatre rather than a specific reconstruction. With its decorative gallery, flamboyant trompe de l’oeil ceiling and resplendent candelabras, it could so easily feel kitsch but doesn’t. The candles (in defiance of all health and safety dogma) create a spell-binding sense of floating in shadow. Sitting in the stall seats you could reach out and touch the players, while those standing in the galleries can still hear the softest brush of finger on lute string.

London’s classical fraternity take note: there’s a new kid on the block doing some very clever programming here. Bill Barclay, American actor-composer and new music director at the Globe, has set out his stall with a string of temptations, from a range of guest-curators including John Williams and Trevor Pinncock, I Fagiolini, Jordi Savall, Andreas Scholl singing music of the Jacobean court, and Levon Chillingirian exploring Shakespeare in Armenia.

For this concert in John Williams’s series, the genial, blind lutenist Matthew Wadsworth played host, giving warmly humorous introductions to his chosen pieces and infusing everything he played with his heightened quality of listening. He moved from the quiet apprehension of a Philip Rossiter Prelude to the virile chromaticism of Dowland, and on to the big-boned drama of a Robert Johnson Pavane. Few venues in the world reward the lute, so his relish at finding one of such intimacy and atmosphere was evident. He hoped aloud that this theatre would bring life and challenge to classical performance just as the revolutionary energy of the Globe has changed live drama: that will be surely tested later this month when the Royal Opera present Cavalli’s Ormindo on its diminutive stage.

Wadsworth then switched to theorbo (whose scroll hovered dangerously near the candelabra) for a delicious group of Venetian pieces from 1604, Kapsberger’s improvisatory exploration of modulations revealed the varied voices of the instrument, from veiled light to dusty depth. Robert de Vissé’s Chaconne danced with graceful curlicues while in Piccinini’s filigree Toccata VI – Corrente notes crowded in around one pitch with impish insistence. Wadsworth shapes the gentle rhetoric of this repertoire to perfection. John Williams lent heft to the bass line of a Kapsberger Passacaglia, and returned in the second half for Giuliani’s balletically brilliant but vaguely absurd Variazione Concertante with Craig Ogden. The bridges over the Thames inspired Stephen Goss’s intriguing The Flower of Cities, for two guitars, bass, percussion, violin and theorbo. A chain of solos and ensemble pieces spot-lit Max Baillie’s zesty spirit, Ogden’s virtuosity and the special beauty of Williams’s tone.

It’s been said before that at the Globe the very architecture becomes its own stage, and the audience players in it. Looking around me I realised our tired, lined, uneven faces had been transformed into open radiance by the chiaroscuro of candlelight. Now, that’s the magic of theatre.

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Future highlights include: Armania (13 & 14 April); Pinnock’s Passions: The Queen’s Command (11 & 12 May); Music from a Jacobean court (15 & 16 June); Jordi Savall presents… (22 & 23 June)

Picture Credit: Pete Le May

  • Article Type: | Blog |
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