Rose project takes centre stage once more
The Times, 14/7/2012
Twenty-three years ago this summer theatre’s nobility from Dame Peggy Ashcroft down stood before the remains of the oldest Tudor theatre to prevent a developer’s bulldozers from destroying them. In respectful silence they listened as Laurence Olivier, from his sickbed in his last public performance, cried “God for Harry, England and The Rose!”
The Rose was the first of the Bankside Tudor theatres, built in 1587 by Philip Henslowe. It was here that Shakespeare may have started his acting career and where his Titus Andronicus and Henry V1 Part 1 were first performed. He switched his allegiance to the Globe, and the Rose became associated with his rival Christopher Marlowe. It fell into disuse in about 1606.
In 1988, in a routine pre-development excavation, Museum of London archaeologists found not only the vestiges of the playhouse they were hoping for, but far more detail in timber and objects than they could have dreamed of. The dig over the following months and the sackfuls of soil taken from it have shown a centre of entertainment where smoking was habitual with not only the remains of clay pipes being found but tobacco seeds, where beer, ale and wine – probably bought from John Cholmley’s tap house on the corner – were drunk out of glass goblets and beakers, washing down pumpkins, shellfish including oysters, cockles, mussels and even crabmeat, varieties of nuts and berry fruit. In the midst of all this some of the playwriting that was to define our language and our culture was being performed, and The Rose’s information was used for the 1998 Oscar-winning film Shakespeare in Love for which The Rose was partially recreated.
The hundreds of tiny glass beads found would have decorated both male and female costumes, and the thin wire would have made elaborate tracery decoration. Fabric and leather were found, a pair of shoes and two boots were beneath the stage, and under the gallery seats were four silver pennies, the remains of weapons and a black rat. Shards of low grade pottery suggest that entrance was not by ticket but by simply putting money into, effectively, piggy banks which would later be smashed to retrieve the takings.
Yet time was called on the dig, and the remains were to be destroyed for building to commence.
The 20th century theatre came to its rescue, and its demonstration on that June Sunday morning forced a change of heart: instead, the remains were preserved beneath a concrete shell against the day when they could be examined again, and the new structure went up around them. English Heritage have designated The Rose a scheduled ancient monument, and recently added it to its Heritage At Risk register.
The actors are turning out again now, in spirit, with a new campaign launched at The Globe yesterday (July 13) to resume the excavation, to preserve the remains on view and to develop the site as a public attraction.
The Rose Theatre Trust, whose patrons include Sir Peter Hall, Dame Judi Dench, James Fox and Janet Suzman and who have been recently joined by Dominic Dromgoole, artistic director of the Globe Theatre nearby, wants an initial £4m that will allow archaeologists back on the site.
Harvey Sheldon, who led the original excavation beside Southwark Bridge and now chairs the trust, said only two thirds of the remains had been uncovered when the dig had to end.
“What we’re hoping to find is the entrance to the theatre in the other third, and possibly a staircase,” Sheldon said. “But what we first need to do is find out the condition of the Rose since we left it all those years ago.
“There’s still a lot to be learned, but we also want to be able to pass the Rose story on by making a proper exhibition that links with The Globe,” he said.
So the scheme devised by the architect Nick Helm makes the most of the existence of the remains and their revelations, with a spiralling observation platform and a performance space, as well as an exhibition. The entrance to the site will be from Rose Alley, a survival of Elizabethan London, and the ground level of a new museum display will be visible from the street through glass walls.
The Trust has applied to the Heritage Lottery Fund for a £1m grant, and hopes that a sum twice the initial appeal target will allow a more comprehensive display.
“The three aims,” Helm said, “are to ensure the long-term preservation of the remains, provide the widest possible access to and enjoyment of The Rose Theatre and to develop the physical, sensory and learning potential of the theatre.
“It’s an educational environment where theatre has to be robust but it’s never going to be protected in the Peter Brook sense. It’s a site specific found space, and we like to say that this is ‘placial’ rather than ‘spacial’ architecture.”
A recruit to the campaign is Tony Robinson, the actor turned historian whose Channel 4 series Time Team has brought important archaeological discoveries to the television public.
“Why is The Rose so important to actors? If you want to rekindle some sense of what performance meant to the Elizabethans then it’s the perfect place to start, in conjunction with The Globe round the corner” he said. “To know that we really are walking on a ground surface that Shakespeare and the other Elizabethan greats walked on.
“The primary importance is that it becomes somewhere practical, otherwise it will be dead,” he added. I know so many pieces of archaeology countrywide that have historical significance that have been exposed and then just left to erode. There’s never enough parking, signs are unreadable, they’re not integrated into any education strategy, and gradually the graffiti starts to be sprayed and what ought to be something that’s celebrated becomes something that at worst is useless and at best an irritation where a good road development ought to be.”