I had a very uncomfortable experience the other night at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse & Sauna, attached to Shakespeare’s Globe in London. As I describe in my review of the concert I attended:
The theatre holds about 340 people, and one sits on hard wooden benches without backs (though the last row in each section — pit, lower gallery and upper gallery do have backs; the wall), and it’s quite cramped, with very little legroom. One woman left shortly after the concert began, no doubt because of the discomfort of sitting.
In addition, it is very hot inside the theater; I was sweating throughout the performance, even though there was air conditioning on. (At least it was on when we entered the theater; it may have been turned off after that.) It was so hot that one person in the audience fainted as he was trying to leave, about 45 minutes into the performance. He clearly didn’t felt well, but didn’t make it out of the theater and collapsed on the stairs next to me, only to be carried out by some of the staff and other audience members.
The point of this theater is that it’s “authentic.” (This Guardian article discusses how it was built, and why.) But this authenticity comes at a price for spectators: that of comfort.
The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is certainly an attractive design, but the uncomfortable seats and excessive heat make it such that I won’t be attending any events there in the future. I’d heard from someone who had seen The Duchess of Malfi there recently that it was very uncomfortable; that person was also sitting in the pit, where many of the seats are at a 45-degree angle to the stage. Clearly this design was as much so people could watch plays as talk to each other.
There’s clearly a reason why theaters have changed their seating to make them more comfortable; it shouldn’t be torture to attend a performance in a theater, because when you’re focused on how uncomfortable you are you can’t pay attention to the play or concert you’re watching. Causing audiences to suffer under the name of authenticity is simply foolish.
At a minimum, I’d expect the theater to warn people, when they book tickets, that their seat won’t have a back, and that it’s a hard wooden bench. At the Royal Shakespeare Company, in Stratford-upon-Avon, near where I live, the booking web site tells you even if there are no armrests for your seats. I’ve attended more than a dozen productions there, and I have never once had my mind occupied by my discomfort. But I have been uncomfortable in other theaters in the UK, often because of poorly designed seats or limited legroom. (And the RSC is currently running two programs of short plays in their third theater, The Courtyard, where they have set up stadium seating: benches with cushions, but no backrests. Unfortunately, they don’t specify this on their website, as I think they should.)
It’s interesting to note that in the Shakespeare’s Globe theatre, next door to the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, the seats are wooden benches, but you can rent cushions. So they try to be authentic, yet make a few extra quid by offering some comfort to those willing to pay.
Authenticity is interesting, but if it means that spectators are neglected, what’s the point? After all, this is a working theater, not a museum. Would it hurt too much to have comfortable seats?