The quest for authenticity

Tom Sutcliffe visits the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

A week before Christmas I paid my first (and probably last) visit to the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse to see The Knight of the Burning Pestle by Francis Beaumont – and to experience this new and by some admired venue on the south bank of the Thames next to Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. For many years there was a brick shell of a structure on the corner of the site to the left of the entrance foyer which was expected to house what used to be referred to as the Inigo Jones Playhouse. Two designs that fell out of a book in the library at Worcester College, Oxford were identified by my friend Iain Mackintosh of Theatre Projects Ltd (Iain sold smallish new theatres all round the world over a number of decades) as being designs by Inigo Jones for a mid-seventeenth-century indoors theatre. In recent years, though, these pages have been reliably identified as being by Jones’s protégé John Webb – and probably represent not a practical architectural project but a sketch for a possible theatre commission that never actually got built.

‘Historical experience’

I simply do not believe that this building which now bears poor Sam Wanamaker’s name, that having been the condition for a donation of £1.5 million, and which cost £7.5 million in total to erect, is anything remotely like an actual theatre that might have existed in Shakespeare’s day. I sat in the horseshoe end of the place on the side and a row back from the front of the first tier gallery. The selling point for this supposedly ‘historical experience’ is the fact that performances are all candle-lit. Candles make an atmosphere and add to a dining-table as they do to a church altar and to a reading lectern for the Gospel. But, regardless of this soft sparkly lighting, I had an impossibly limited view of the acting area. It seems inconceivable to me that a structure so unfavourable to the audience experience as an intimate encounter with acting could possibly have been commercially viable. It was not just uncomfortable, but incompetent for what it was trying to do.

Fascination with the past

The Globe may also to some extent be a historical fantasy. But it is a huge success with tourists and indicates a fascination which many people have with the experience of the past – or more accurately of something which gives an idea of what it was all ‘originally’ like. It gets no subsidy but it brings many plays to large audiences with no scenic indulgence to speak of, which is not just a historical quirk but perhaps an artistic benefit. Maybe to pull back the process of theatrical interpretation to what we might think it is meant to be – and exercise in the audience’s imagination – is virtuous. Of course what always matters most in the theatre is what goes on in the audience’s collective head. But being an operatic person I do think that the world created onstage is a crucial part of the imaginative stimulus – even though these days the nature of that world is by no means primarily concerned, as it once was, by an attempted realism.

What happens at Shakespeare’s Globe and at the Wanamaker Playhouse is rooted in an appeal to authenticity – which is not the same thing as imaginative reinterpretation. Much fuss is now made about authenticity – above all in musical performance. The love of baroque music has waxed greatly because in the post-war era atonal music was the only kind of modernism permitted by many influential critics – and the public never learnt to take the medicine.

Beyond recreation

In any case the sound of music is a gateway to the meaning and effect within what one hears – listening to the meta-music that informs the composer’s conception. Yes, it is of use to know the sounds and style historical instruments might have generated. But in baroque music some elements of authenticity are beyond recreation – such as the authenticity of the castrato male voice. The recording of a Sistine Chapel eunuch a little over a century ago does not really explain what Handel’s star soloists Farinelli, Senesino and Guadagni sounded like. I myself sang two Bach alto Cantatas accompanied by Nikolaus Harnoncourt and his Concentus Musicus in 1970 in the Konzerthaus in Vienna, but as an inauthentic countertenor at best supplied a certain virility in phrasing and attack. Bach used boy altos, not castrati. In Handel opera a mezzosoprano is probably more authentic than a countertenor – though falsetto techniques are now very sophisticated. The most inauthentic element in the historically informed performance movement is of course the use or leadership of a maestro – a nineteenth-century innovation – but so useful to have a name there when you are promoting a performance product. On the other hand there are now choirs and ensembles which have shown just how marvellous music-making can be without a conductor – but with musicians really listening to each other and each sharing expressive and interpretative responsibility.

The craze for historical practice and authentic instruments which generated a tidal wave of consumer enthusiasm for baroque gave public relations experts and advertisers a new irresistible promotional narrative. A fashionable aesthetic novelty in musical interpretation became something like Old Master paintings cleansed of grime and darkened varnish. And historical practice did sound different – and difference is refreshing and reveals new aspects. Voices sang florid music with a lighter speedier touch. But any appeal to authenticity, however based on study and historical perceptions, is, as the Gothic Revival showed, not quite as described. Fashion takes many forms. And mutability is part of a new life, and a new vision. ND