Inside Bankside's First Playhouse (It's Not The Globe)

By Emma Finamore Last edited 9 months ago
Inside Bankside's First Playhouse (It's Not The Globe)

Hidden away off Bankside's backstreets is The Rose Playhouse, the first theatre on Bankside, and the first Southwark stage trodden by Shakespeare.

Built in 1587, The Rose Playhouse predates its famous older sister, the Globe, by over a decade. It is a "cherry pip spitting distance" from the original Globe site, according to Ben Johnson in one of his plays.

In fact, the Rose was pivotal in turning Southwark into the home of the London stage. "The London theatres north of the river wouldn't have upped sticks and come to Bankside, if this one hadn't already been popular," Pepe Pryke, artistic associate at the playhouse, tells us.

The site was discovered in 1989, when an existing office was pulled down and foundations started being laid for a new one. Luckily, the concrete was poured into gaps around the old stage, narrowly missing the Elizabethan structure.

According to Pepe, the recent history of the site is steeped in the London theatre: an actor walked past the dig during its early stages in 1989, trying to find the original Globe site and happened to notice people digging at the Rose site. He asked them what they had found; "Shakespeare’s first playhouse," they told him. When he returned back to work at the Old Vic, he spoke about his find with Dustin Hoffman, who happened to be playing Shylock at the time.

Laurence Olivier as Henry V, with a note at the bottom written to the Rose.

Hoffman spoke about the discovery later that day in an interview with The Evening Standard. The publicity piqued the interest of the public and the theatre world: a campaign to 'Save the Rose' and protect it from redevelopment was launched with enthusiastic support from actors, including Ralph Fiennes, Alan Rickman and the dying Laurence Olivier, who gave his last public speech on behalf of The Rose.

Pepe remembers one of the most memorable moments of the campaign to keep the dig going: "Dame Peggy Ashcroft stood with a fag in one hand and a cup of tea in the other, and stood in front of the bulldozers as they were trying to get through to the site."

It remained a firm favourite with British actors after the excavation too: "Alan would come in every few months," says Pepe, gesturing to a photo of the late Alan Rickman, on the wall of the playhouse entrance. "He would just pop in and see a show."

As a result of the Save the Rose campaign, the four-week dig turned into a 12-week one, and two thirds of the site was excavated. The team discovered hazelnut shells on the floor, which people at first assumed were the Elizabethan/Tudor equivalent of popcorn, but were later discovered to be 'like kitty litter on the floor' — used as a hard, absorbent flooring.

"There was a soap factory up the road which squashed hazelnuts for their oil, which they used for candles and soap," he says. "They then sold the shells to the theatre for use on the ground, like sawdust on the floor of a butchers.

"We found oyster shells, cheap food, in the yard where audiences were standing, and chicken bones in the gentlemen's boxes – so it gives us an idea of what people of different social demographics were eating."

C. Walter Hodges reconstruction of the Rose in its earlier phase, c 1587-1592. Reproduced by kind permission of the estate of C. Walter Hodges.

They also have something very rare for a playhouse of the time (in fact Pepe says it is the only one of its kind): the owner's accounts book. This is an important record of the day-to-day running of the theatre and gives an impression of the sort of work that took place there. It not only gives details of the playhouse's expenditure on the theatre building from 1592, but also of the plays subsequently staged there, of the audiences that they attracted, even of props and costumes.

The book shows that The Rose's repertory included Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, Jew of Malta and Tamburlaine the Great, Thomas Kyd's Spanish Tragedy, and Shakespeare's Henry VI, Part 1 and Titus Andronicus.

The lay of the theatre is pointed out to us.

Shakespeare himself would have trodden the boards here: "Seven years before the Globe was even built, Shakespeare honed his craft on the Rose's stage, says Pepe, "They know that a 'Wilm Shakspur' was paid for performing at court that year and on The Rose stage."

The accounts also demonstrate the investment the playhouse put into its performances: 20 pounds was spent on the costume for Tamburlaine. "A good teacher would have been earning about 17 pounds in a year at that time," says Pepe, "and the first of Shakespeare's folios cost about one pound."

The Rose Theatre Trust was formed as a part of the Save the Rose campaign, to protect against the destruction of the theatre's remains. The Trust's work now means that current London residents can enjoy the same space loved by their 1500s counterparts.

Today's visitors can see see the dig site, the outlines of the original playhouse foundations lit up, and the front of the original stage — the spot where Shakespeare would have stood. Reimagined classics are now staged here.

The next stage for the Rose is the Rose Revealed project: a plan to complete the dig begun in 1989, and turn the site into a permanent exhibition. The project has received second phase funding from The National Lottery, but The Rose needs to match it: buy a ticket to a play, or donate to ensure the original Bankside theatre is restored to its former glory.

The Rose Playhouse is open to the public every Saturday from 10am-5pm. Entry is free. All donations go towards the Rose Revealed Project.

Last Updated 24 October 2016