37/52 – The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

We’re taking a step back in the 52 challenge (in case you were confused why it suddenly jumped back to 37!) to revisit a trip to the Sam Wanamaker playhouse that I took before Christmas. I went to see ‘The Knight of the Burning Pestle’ as part of my Renaissance Drama module – and although I was stood at the back (so my view mainly consisted of my lecturers laughing uproariously in the good seats), I enjoyed the performance, and especially the atmosphere of the theatre. Instead of directing you to a ‘professional’ theatre review, I decided to try and write my own – I hope you enjoy it!


The last time The Knight of the Burning Pestle was performed to a modern audience, the production was an unmitigated failure. The ‘sadly misguided revival’ which went on stage at the Barbican in 2005 was criticised for its lacklustre approach and strained performance, which, according to Lyn Gardner’s crushing one star review for The Guardian, ‘suggested nobody […] really believed in the play’. Having seen the most recent production at the Sam Wanamaker theatre, I have to sympathise with that unfortunate original cast – it was hard enough for me to believe in the convoluted plot of this renaissance comedy – and I had already read the script. That being said, director Adele Thomas has certainly taken on a challenge with this lively four hundred year old comedy, and for the most part I think she succeeded in putting on a very successful production.


The Sam Wanamaker theatre, a newly opened indoor theatre, baby brother to Shakespeare’s Globe (and certainly no more comfortable for the posterior), is an undeniably atmospheric setting, and while the clusters of candles may have dazzled some audience members (they are hung rather frustratingly in one’s line of sight and move up and down distractingly during the play), it would be hard not to be impressed by the faithful reproduction of such an intimate, and – dare I say it – almost magical, performance space.

The cast of Pestle were to be found darting on and off the stage at every possible moment, staging impressive fight scenes while making circuits of the audience, and even hanging precariously from upper balconies, or leaning over the handrails to plant kisses upon, or whisper sweet nothings to, unsuspecting ladies (and gentlemen) in the front rows of the stalls.

Hannah McPake (Mistress Merrythought) and Giles Cooper (Michael) in The Knight Of The Burning Pestle

They certainly are a lively bunch, and managed to keep the play going through some quite dire scenes which belong to The London Merchant, the play which the audience are apparently about to watch before the ‘Citizen’ (Phil Daniels), and his wife (the fantastic Pauline McLynn) interrupt the action, fearing that it will ‘have no good meaning’ to the noble trade of Grocers. They nominate their apprentice, Rafe, to be the hero of their new play, The Knight of the Burning Pestle, and bully, interrupt and cajole the other actors into being a part of their knightly comedy, which they then proceed to talk their way through, at one point even producing a huge bag of liquorice and distributing it among the audience until they are ‘shushed’ by the long-suffering actors – all to great comic effect.


However faithfully reproduced the theatre may be, it was hard for me to immerse myself in a Renaissance mindset while I slyly logged onto the wifi and searched the Sam Wanamaker website for a cast list (Jolyon Coy was an almost unbelievably good looking Jasper), all while trying to avoid the watchful eye of a tabarded steward with a very modern flashlight (and an admittedly old fashioned view on mobile phone use).

That being said, what has resulted is – and there’s simply no other word for it – a delightful romp which the audience seemed to be thoroughly invested in. The small theatre space and the cast’s readiness to break the fourth wall and mingle with their audience all make for an intimate atmosphere in which the audience respond more readily to the humour and energy of the play – and by the time the performance ends with a traditional song-and-dance, even the stoniest members of the audience could be seen tapping their feet to the infectious energy of this magnificently resurrected Renaissance comedy.

PV x

[These pictures are not my own and have been sourced from The Globe website, the Spectator, thepublicreviews.com and storify]