Reinventing the language of candlelight

The Duchess of Malfi, The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, 9 January 2014

Introducing the playhouse

The first thing that strikes you when entering the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is way the antique design of the building is rendered in clean, bright, fresh new oak. The light colour of the galleries and stage contrasts with the elegant black frons scenae. This mostly absorbs light, only its gold detailing throws flickers of it back into the room, creating a dark backdrop against which the cast stands out. This effect is enhanced if, as here with the Duchess of Malfi herself, a costume sparkles with sequins.

Performances at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse are lit by a combination of candlelight and artificial daylight that enters through windows in the lower gallery access corridor.

The beeswax candles are long-lasting and do not need to be trimmed at act breaks allowing performances to proceed with only one interval. The playhouse is fitted with a powerful air extraction system, so that far from being hot and smoky, the atmosphere is unusually chilly and fresh. A sophisticated smoke detector can differentiate between candle smoke and fire. Just to be on the safe side, the costumes are fireproofed.

Seven candelabras each carry twelve candles; ten sconces fitted to gallery pillars contain each two candles; candles are fitted to the musicians’ gallery; and actors also carry handheld candelabra or single candles. Over 100 candles are required for each performance and some 3,000 are stored onsite.

Shutters can be closed over the windows in the lower gallery corridor to recreate the way Jacobean daytime performances would have sealed off external windows to simulate nighttime. The candelabras can be raised and lowered, which alternately dims and brightens the stage. Candelabras and scones can be extinguished to create total darkness and then relit by the cast. Handheld candles can be used like portable spotlights to light the holder or their interlocutor, and can also be placed on the stage.

These elements can be combined in multiple permutations to create a wide variety of lighting effects.

The real excitement of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is witnessing the reinvention of candlelit performance as 21st century theatre makers rediscover the artistic possibilities of indoor theatre’s original technology.

The playhouse’s first production has done much to explore and develop this new language.

Really saying something

Whereas in most indoor theatres the start of the performance is heralded by extinguishing the house lights, in the Sam Wanamaker the same transition point is marked by the lighting of the candelabras.

The candelabras were lit at chest height, after which they were hoisted to their standard position a few feet above the heads of the actors.

Far from a perfunctory piece of stage management, the lighting and positioning of the candelabras became a ceremony in which the playhouse’s signature element was introduced, reminiscent of a flag raising.

The shutters were kept open for 1.1, which together with the candelabras and sconces created a comparatively light airy feeling for the party scene. There was a process of adjustment to the playhouse’s varying light levels, and this first scene, although darker than it would have been in a bulb-lit theatre, came to feel brighter in comparison with others.

The Duchess (Gemma Arterton) and the Cardinal (James Garnon) were first glimpsed seated at a table in the discovery space behind the frons scenae, while other characters ate strawberries from a dish placed on a table centre stage.

But then the mood changed. As the Duchess was rounded on by her brothers (1.2.207), this psychological encroachment was mirrored by the progressive closure of the shutters, starting on the stage left side of the playhouse and gradually moving round to the other side. This not only darkened the stage: the visible movement of the shutters and the repeated noise as each one was shut fast, created an increasingly claustrophobic atmosphere.

It was also noticeable that at this point in the play the language began to contain references to darkness that underpinned the lighting change. Ferdinand (David Dawson) referred to the Duchess’s “darkest actions” immediately followed by the Cardinal telling her she might marry “under the eaves of night”.

The darkness remained for the following sequence between the Duchess and Antonio. But the romantic nature of the action meant that the low lighting now lent intimacy to the spectacle of the Duchess hinting at her love for her steward.

Two candelabras either side downstage were lowered to chest height and the Duchess stood by a sconce and backlit herself ready for Antonio’s (Alex Waldmann) entry. A handheld candelabra was placed on the desk.

As the Duchess’s hints to Antonio became more blatant, at around 1.2.290 (“In heaven”), Antonio took the handheld and held it close to the Duchess’ face, illuminating her and also at a symbolic level signalling his passion for her.

Holding the light to her was a very physical gesture indicating his desire to see more of her and casting her in bright light was symbolic of his assessment of her worth. Up to this point she had effectively been making all the running in wooing him: his action here marked the point at which she became the passive one as he behaved assertively towards her.

The space is intimate, and so is the effect of lighting actors close up with handhelds. The way one actor can shed light on another has a completely different effect to that created by a lighting director throwing switches in a control room to turn on, dim and extinguish bulbs.

Handhelds act like close-up spotlighting, focusing attention on facial expression.

Characters lighting others is also about physical gesture, proximity and movement as well as lighting. The gesture entails entry into personal space and speaks of intimacy either benevolent or malevolent.

Once the Duchess had placed her ring on Antonio’s finger and the bond of their love had been sealed, at around 1.2.362 (“Sir, be confident”) they both stood on opposite sides of a lowered candelabra which illuminated the two of them very powerfully. The candelabra here was a hot and brilliant light source that symbolically represented the heat of their nascent love.

They both knelt downstage for the handfasting ceremony, each holding one of Cariola’s (Sarah MacRae) hands, and with a handheld placed on the stage in front of them to provide intimate uplighting.

If the giving of light can indicate the ignition of love, then the extinguishing of light can herald the onset of darkness in its widest sense.

After Bosola (Sean Gilder) had discovered that the Duchess was pregnant in 2.1, he began scene 2.2 by touring the stage edge to blow out the sconce candles as he explained his scheme. His extinguishing of the lights in readiness for the darker scene ahead symbolised his influence over events. An association was created between encroaching darkness and impending evil.

The darkness also had a practical purpose, as the sequence in which the household staff were assembled to be told of the bogus burglary took place late at night and the stage was now adequately dim to simulate these conditions.

In at least one of the performances, at scene 2.3 Antonio and Bosola confronted each other and argued in the semidarkness of the palace brandishing handhelds in each other’s faces.

The characters stood close together each extending a handheld in their right hand so that it lit the other’s face at close range. This mutual invasion of personal space indicated their aggression. Their proximity coupled with the position of their outstretched arms was reminiscent of the striking of blows and subliminally suggested conflict.

On a severely practical note, the semidarkness of the stage made it entirely credible that Antonio might drop the astrological chart he had drawn up for the newborn baby and leave it behind for Bosola to pick up.

One of the highlights of the production was David Dawson’s moody Ferdinand, whose unhinged personality was heralded by a stray lock of hair that flopped over his face as a visual reminder of his damaged psyche.

By scene 2.5 the Aragon brothers had discovered their sister’s fatal secret. Ferdinand shook his stray lock of hair and shouted angrily while his cooler Cardinal brother tried to calm him down.

Two things became apparent during this exchange: firstly that the small playhouse auditorium amplified loud shouting voices so that their full force could be felt physically. Vocal emotional extremes had more impact.

Secondly, and most interestingly from the lighting perspective, the powerful exhalation of air by a vocal character in proximity to a handheld candelabra risked blowing candles out.

And at one performance, as Ferdinand crouched on the ground and vented his spleen, he accidentally blew out one of his candles. At a symbolic level, the accidental extinguishing of candles demonstrated the unpredictable nature of events, and also hinted at the instability and excess of the characters in question.

Later in 3.1 mad Ferdinand was handed a key to the Duchess’s chamber by Bosola. He leant forward to shake Bosola’s hand and his manic face was spotlit momentarily by Bosola’s handheld sconce, whose reflective back focused the light from its two candles to give Ferdinand’s face sinister uplighting at the very instant he acquired the means of surprising his sister. It was noteworthy that he was made to look manic and evil when performing a gesture usually associated with sociability.

The happy couple sang Monteverdi’s Zefiro Torna as a scene of domestic bliss unfolded at the beginning of 3.2. But when the Duchess was left alone, Ferdinand sneaked in on her, and overheard her talking to her unseen husband about the prospect of having more children. After the Duchess had spied him in a handheld mirror, Ferdinand confronted her with her now open secret.

Handheld candelabras were placed on the stage front as Ferdinand sat on the ground and rocked back and forth like a disturbed child. Movingly, the Duchess, who crouched beside, actually seemed to pity him.

The interval came just after the Duchess and her fugitive family were captured by Bosola. During the interval the lighting was transformed.

Into darkness

The second half began with the sconces above the pit extinguished. Because of their location they were not relit at any point. The stage candles were all doused apart from two sconces and the shutters were closed.

This formed the gloomy setting for Ferdinand and Bosola’s discussion of the Duchess’s imprisonment. Bosola prepared the Duchess to meet her brother in complete darkness and when she bid Bosola “Take hence the lights” he removed the remaining two sconces so that the playhouse was plunged into total darkness.

This meant that the only clues to what was happening came from the Duchess’s comment on the coldness of the proffered hand and the clunk of her dropping what she took to be dead Antonio’s hand. The Duchess called for lights, which Bosola supplied, casting a dim light on the wax hand abandoned on the floor.

Bosola showed the Duchess the wax model of the dead Antonio and her children, which was brought forward through the discovery space with a large number of short candles at its base casting an eerie uplight on the contorted figures that the Duchess took to be her dead family.

This was the Duchess’s lowest point of despair. But in the deepest darkness there came a glimmer of hope, again with candles providing the symbolism.

The Duchess and Cariola sang as they relit the candelabra candles at the start of 4.2. The candelabras were then hoisted into the air, sparking memories of the performance’s ceremonial beginning and the rush of excitement that had provoked.

This relighting symbolised the fortitude and hope of the Duchess and Cariola. It also showed them in control of their environment in a way that ran counter to their imprisonment. So when further troubles came their way soon afterwards, it was against the backdrop of this moment, which made the Duchess’s resilience the more credible.

The parade of madmen sent to her by Ferdinand performed a silly slow dance to tune of Cuckoo’s Nest before being chained up again and escorted away.

This levity was soon replaced by the grim Bosola, now disguised in a hooded cloak and facemask, his deep voice bluntly informing her “I am come to make thy tomb”. Executioners carried in a black coffin with candles on its four corners.

Her simple bold statement “I am Duchess of Malfi still” was reinforced by the lighting design throughout the entire period that she faced her impending death at Bosola’s hands.

She stared at the coffin fatefully, illuminated by the general candlelight but most importantly by her own handheld.

As she moved slowly and deliberately, the handheld spotlit her face and illuminated the dignity of its calm expression. Attention was drawn to her quietness and thoughtfulness, again highlighting her inner state of mind.

This created a very powerful and moving effect, equivalent to a cinematic close up. The fact that she was effectively lighting herself symbolised her reliance on her own inner resources as her only source of comfort.

The Duchess, her children and Cariola were all strangled. Ferdinand’s regret at his sister’s death prompted his “lycanthropia”. As Ferdinand flitted around in his madness, he approached a man in a Lords Box and exclaimed to him “I confess nothing” lighting both their faces with a handheld. This showed the potential for audience inclusion in the action, and therefore also in the lighting scheme.

The shutters were opened to suggest a daylight outdoors scene at the ruined abbey (5.3). Antonio and Delio (Paul Rider) entered through the pit, and once on the stage, Antonio opened a small trap door in the stage under which there was a small quantity of soil.

The Duchess spoke as Echo and was heard at various places in the outer corridors. She was then seen briefly at the back of the upper gallery. This glimpse, which is referenced in the text, was made possible by the bright general lighting.

The playhouse’s lighting came into its own in the final scenes of the production that involve multiple murders in dark interiors.

The chandeliers were hoisted to their highest position to minimise the light level but make the action dimly visible (5.4). Bosola overheard the Cardinal plotting his death, but in the gloom he instead killed Antonio, the man whom he had intended to save. The reduced lighting made this kind of error entirely credible.

The Cardinal read a book by the light of a handheld and tipped the candelabra forward at an extreme angle so that wax dripped on to the floor (5.5). This was an isolated example of a lighting prop being used for something other than a pure lighting effect. The angle of the candelabra and its dripping wax served to highlight the Cardinal’s distracted state of mind – he was so consumed by his thoughts that he did not notice the stream of liquid issuing from his reading lamp.

The play came to a bloody conclusion with its stabbings and deaths. Ferdinand’s dying moments were caught by a handheld placed on the ground whose light accentuated his pained expression.

Conclusions

The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is a complementary research project to The Globe. Candlelight is its keynote feature and main selling point. The use of lighting has already been established as a central concern in this grand experiment.

The first production has shown that the Playhouse can facilitate an incredibly sophisticated lighting design and has also demonstrated that candlelight can be used to create meaning in ways that are, to us at least, new and unfamiliar.

Four candles

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