Elizabethan Theatre

There is nothing like an anniversary to concentrate the mind and here we have several Tudor-linked ones all coming together.

Rose excavation

Thirty years ago this month Dame Peggy Ashcroft obstructed the bulldozers in the ruins of the newly discovered Rose Theatre (above), yards from the original Globe and two minutes’ walk from the as-yet-unbuilt modern “Wooden O”. A number of famous voices shared Dame Peggy’s fervour – actors such as Judi Dench, Ian McKellen and Dustin Hoffman and the local MP Simon Hughes among them. Laurence Olivier, frail and near the end of his life, sent a rousing audio message to the cause: “For England, Harry and the Rose!” There was a successful outcome: although an office building rose above the ruins, the remnants were protected and a rudimentary performance space has been used imaginatively ever since to mount plays by Shakespeare and his contemporaries.

Some of us who were there on that day (after all, not everyone who cared was famous) joined distinguished guests, including academics and theatre people, at Southwark Cathedral on May 13th for a gala event (below), part reminiscence, part fundraiser, part acknowledgement of the power of Shakespeare’s words. In fact, Marlowe was more closely associated with this theatre built in 1587, the first on Bankside, but Shakespeare’s Henry VI plays also received early performances here.

Among the speakers were lauded Shakespearians (and early Rose supporters) Janet Suzman, contemplating the energy and excitement of the language released in the playhouse, and Michael Pennington, thinking about being in those first audiences. Lord Strange’s Men played in the Henry VI trilogy there in 1592 to some 2000 people who must have been reminded of stories of the Wars of the Roses much as we might look back on the First World War. Pennington cited the famous scene in which the king sits upon a molehill and observes the anguish caused by civil strife as proof of Shakespeare’s extraordinary ability to combine Marlowe’s mighty line with the personal and conversational, to move between high and low registers of speech.

The RoseThe audience at the gala, including Michael Pennington, far left, Jonathan Livingstone, centre

The talented young actor, Jonathan Livingstone, fresh from playing Mortimer in Edward II and Edward Alleyn in After Edward at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, talked about researching Alleyn at Dulwich College where the Rose archive, including the diary of its founder Philip Henslowe, is housed. Actor/writer Ben Crystal gave a taste of Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis using original pronunciation, which he is due to perform at the Rose in the near future.

Architect Nick Helm introduced the Rose’s next phase, the Rose Revealed Project, a new period of excavation and conservation which will uncover more of the playhouse’s footprint. Eventually, the Rose Theatre Trust wish to establish an arts and visitor centre to display and celebrate what is discovered. This venture is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund and a variety of sponsors and will take an estimated two-and-a-half years to complete.

Events at the Rose:

Monday, May 20th, talk by Julian Bowsher, distinguished archaeologist who worked on the site in 1989.The Rose: Archaeology, History, Drama 7 pm, £12

May 21st – May 23rd, Shakespeare Solos featuring a Korean Desdemona, a Polish Midsummer Night’s Dream and an English Richard III in a series of one and two person responses to Shakespeare’s work. Most shows are two for the price of one. £10-£15.

Saturday Open Days will feature workshops throughout the year, including, on May 25th, an exploration of Tudor costume. Free. Noon until 4 pm.

For more information and to make a donation:  www.roseplayhouse.org.uk

Richard Burbage mural

Meanwhile, Dulwich is remembering two of Shakespeare’s actors this year. In 1619, Edward Alleyn founded Dulwich College (which holds a First Folio as well as other important papers of the period). This is also the 400th anniversary of the death of Richard Burbage, the first to play roles such as Hamlet and Richard III. Artist Lionel Stanhope has completed this mural – where else? – in Burbage Road as part of the Dulwich Festival. For more information: www.exitburbage.org.uk

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