site unseen The Theatre, Shoreditch

Click to follow
The Independent Online
At long last the late Mr Sam Wanamaker's dream is finally edging toward fruition. The new Globe Theatre, thatched roof and all, stands proud and true down on Bankside no more than 50 yards from the River Thames. Actor Mark Rylance has been appointed artistic director and has happily declared that he wants audiences to behave just as they would have done in Shakespeare's day - even if this does mean performers will be dodging projectiles.

It will be interesting to see if Rylance adopts another device from those times. Pickpockets were made to stand in a pillory on the edge of the stage with their names hung on boards around their necks.

The original Globe Theatre had opened about 150 yards away in 1599 and is commemorated by an excellent wall plaque in Park Street, showing precisely what Southwark looked like 400 years ago. This memorial is what Sam Wanamaker found in 1949 on a visit to London. He thought it totally inadequate and it prompted him to try and rebuild a Shakespearean theatre.

Despite its international fame, however, the Globe was not London's original playhouse. Our first ever theatre was appropriately called The Theatre and it was built in Shoreditch, East London, in 1576 by a Mr James Burbage and his grocer brother-in-law, John Brayne.

Even though Burbage and Brayne soon fell out, the Theatre proved a success, and the next year an imitator called The Curtain opened just down the road. Its name had nothing to do with props or scenery but was derived from the curtain wall of the religious buildings which had stood nearby before the Reformation. In other words, it was here in Shoreditch and not in Southwark that the young William Shakespeare learnt his craft.

Mr Burbage's lease ran out after 21 years, and the players simpled upped and offed. Assembling in the dead of night on 28 December 1598, they dismantled the wooden building, loaded the timber into carts, wheeled the carts over London Bridge and there, on Bankside, they used the wood to form the seating of their new playhouse, which they opened the next year and called... the Globe. A wonderful story which testifies to the continuity of popular entertainment.

Visit Shoreditch today in search of either early playhouse and you will be very disappointed. But one of the noisy and traffic-laden thoroughfares is at least called Curtain Road, while a tablet on number 88 tells you something of the history of the Theatre and the Curtain, the first two British playhouses.

Perhaps, if Sam Wanamaker had stumbled upon this insignificant memorial in 1949, he would have dedicated himself to rebuilding a Shakespearean theatre here in Shoreditch and not over the river in Southwark. It would certainly have been easier to get to.

The memorial to Britain's first two theatres is on the eastern side of Curtain Road, London EC2, close to New Inn Yard

Comments