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
Kathy (Sally Lindsay) in Ordinary Lies
tvReview: The seemingly dull Kathy proves her life is anything but a snoozefest
Arts and Entertainment

Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boy

music
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig in a scene from ‘Spectre’, released in the UK on 23 October

film
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap

film
Arts and Entertainment

Poldark review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Brayben is nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Carole King in Beautiful

film
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
  • Get to the point
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.

    War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

    War with Isis

    Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
    Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

    A spring in your step?

    Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

    Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
    Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

    Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

    For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
    Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

    Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

    As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
    The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

    UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

    Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

    Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
    Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

    Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

    If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
    10 best compact cameras

    A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

    If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
    Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

    Paul Scholes column

    Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
    Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
    Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?