The new Rose blooms at last

Marlowe and Shakespeare's original Elizabethan playhouse has been given a hi-tech restoration.

Four centuries after London's first Elizabethan playhouse closed, the Rose Theatre is to bloom again. Not as a theatre but with its foundations, rubble ramparts, floorboards, Tudorbethan-style pillars, posts and balustrades to the minstrels' galleries rising up in a ghostly white light from the real-life site of an archaeological dig.

This isn't floodlighting but fluorescent light, used to create the 3D illusion of the Rose rising up out of the basement of the Seventies office block in Southwark it now inhabits. This will-o'- the-wisp Elizabethan theatre, created by set designer Bill Dudley, has a 20-minute sound and light show playing on glass screens in front of the foundations.

Try as they might, archaeologists have a tough job showing us that what they do is exciting. Patient trowel work uncovering ancient architecture ends up looking like a slag heap. The Rose theatre may be the first - and possibly last - Elizabethan playhouse buried in the swampy banks of the Thames, but today it looks like the moonscape the Clangers inhabited, a lumpy pudding-mix under a foot of water to keep the alluvial soil moist, lest centuries-old timber drains brought to the surface should just crumble like dust.

After centuries buried under clay and peat, the Rose was discovered in 1989 on the site of a proposed carpark. Actors protested in the jaws of JCB diggers to save the theatre from being cemented, but Siefert's building went up in 13 storeys over it, with a carefully constructed basement to protect the Rose without digging load-bearing piles into its foundations. The offending office block was completed in 1989, towards the end of the Eighties property boom, and stood empty for four years, but now its tenants are the Health and Safety Commission.

The Rose needs funds to stabilise the marshy soil and preserve the timber parts. Visitors to the light- show resurrection will be charged pounds 3 a head, towards a goal of pounds 5m in the next two years. The Rose is hoping to attract some of the visitors from the other Elizabethan theatre rebuilt nearby, the Globe. The restoration work involves removing the concrete membrane that covers the foundations and the water, and using a spray-wax system to preserve the timber. The remains have not all been excavated yet because a sliver of the playhouse circle (about one third of the total area) lies under the London City Engineers depot. Boffins are hoping that Southwark Bridge excavations in the early 19th century didn't damage that bit.

Titus Andronicus and Henry VI played in this theatre. All Marlowe's first nights were held under a roof supported by just two posts across the stage while the audience swayed in the open air. Three thousand gathered regularly around the little stage, so small that Edward Alleyn closed it in 1606 - just seven years after it had opened.

We know from Shakespeare in Love that the Rose was as pretty as a picture in wattle and daub. Dame Judi Dench liked it so much that she bought the stage sets from Shepperton studios, even though they're just cardboard cut-outs with exteriors like billboards. She hopes to build them into an acting school in Islington on the site of the old Collins Music Hall.

The original Rose had "attiring rooms" for actors backstage, and three- tiered galleries on either side of the open stage. "Not as fol-de-roled as the Inigo Jones-look that Shepperton gave the theatre front," says Clare Graham, theatre project manager in charge of getting the Rose running as a tourist attraction. The version of the Rose created for the film would never have fitted on the real-life site. Besides, the foundations of an historic site are the equivalent of a Grade I-listed building, so you can't mock up a film- set replica or build anything substantial around it. They couldn't have bought the film set for use as an adjunct to the Globe theatre; the structure is too tall for the undercroft. Besides, the mechanics of turning a stage set for films into a building are more complex. They need lavatories, disabled access, entrances, shops and restaurants, dressing rooms.

To bring this hybrid Rose to life, the Trust turned to the grand illusionist, set designer Bill Dudley. He likes the challenge of giving unprepossessing spaces an emotional charge.

When Dudley staged a play on the First World War in a derelict dockyard in Glasgow, the audience were strapped into fairground seats while actors slithered in and out of trenches cut into the floor. Scenes were shifted while dry ice rolled out of these trenches like gas and gun fire. In the same space, Dudley staged The Ship with Glaswegian actors actually launching a ship into the Clyde. There wasn't a dry eye in the place.

So Bill Dudley wasn't fazed by having to stage a show inside a theatre that isn't exactly a theatre but more of a ruin covered by a preservation order in the basement of an office block. To his eyes, the flooding is a "magic pond". Dim daylight filtered through tall, arrow-slit windows makes it "like a cathedral, or a castle". He thought of Excalibur arising from the lake and created the illusion of the Rose arising from its ruins. To him, the basement space is "dramatic, the biggest and deepest structural interior in Europe".

The best magic never lets on how it's done, but a preview of the show reveals its secrets. Laid all over the ring of the Rose theatre foundations are electro-luminescent pads like electric blankets made of 14 different layers of plastic, all with their own underwater leads plugged into a control box, insulated so that when Chris Smith switches on the show on 14 April "it doesn't go bang," in the words of Dorian Kelly, sparks- magician from Illuminati, the company working on the lights. The fluorescent lights give off an eerie white glow, shining through acetate film. You won't see this film in the murky waters, but inked with magic marker, it shows stones and floorboards, ramparts and timber drains, traced exactly to a millimetre from the foundations below. Light shining through these crudely inked but precise shapes makes 3D structures loom out of the water.

"Not the real thing like the Globe next door," Bill Dudley says, "but near as dammit. The whole point of the exhibition is that it is underwater. My brief was to give the public some idea of what lies beneath it. You'll never see the real Rose, since it lies under listed buildings that are protected. But archaeology makes the building very accessible. On site I get quite emotional. I'm in contact with the history of London and it's a real labour of love."

Two big glass screens slanted above the galleries beam out a sound-and- light show on the history of the Rose and its excavations against the eerily lit backdrop of the foundations. When Dudley began researching the site, he discovered there had been 67 brothels there, one every couple of yards. Snatches of bawdy songs ring out, and film clips from Shakespeare in Love since what he calls the "miraculous reconstruction of the Rose" informed filmmakers on the architecture of Elizabethan playhouses.

"In the 1590s, Southwark was the biggest entry into Europe. There are parallels in the 1990s with people who are attracted to London in search of work."

Architects often borrow theatrical devices, but they still have to make the shelter substantial. Bill Dudley's show is in direct response to the site. He couldn't build on the Grade I-listed monument even if he tried. This exhibition serves to remind people of its existence.

Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

Arts and Entertainment
Dapper Laughs found success through the video app Vine

comedy Erm...he seems to be back

Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)

tvReview: No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Arts and Entertainment
Bruce Forsyth and Tess Daly flanking 'Strictly' winners Flavia Cacace and Louis Smith

tv Gymnast Louis Smith triumphed in the Christmas special

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that? The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year

    Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that?

    The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year
    Hollande's vanity project is on a high-speed track to the middle of nowhere

    Vanity project on a high-speed track to nowhere

    France’s TGV network has become mired in controversy
    Sports Quiz of the Year

    Sports Quiz of the Year

    So, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
    Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry, his love of 'Bargain Hunt', and life as a llama farmer

    Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry and his love of 'Bargain Hunt'

    From Armstrong and Miller to Pointless
    Sanchez helps Gunners hold on after Giroud's moment of madness

    Sanchez helps Gunners hold on

    Olivier Giroud's moment of madness nearly costs them
    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect