L-R: actors Michael Pennington and Dame Janet Suzman, architect Nick Helm, Harvey Sheldon, chair of the Rose Trustees, Simon Hughes MP for Southwark, and actor  Timothy West. Image: Jack Lawson

Almost a quarter of a century after the 16th-century Rose Theatre was rediscovered during archaeological work ahead of the construction of a new office block (see CA 115), its trustees today (13 July) launched a Heritage Lottery Fund bid to secure its future.

After a long fight to save the playhouse from advancing bulldozers, the remains were designated a Scheduled Ancient Monument and preserved in situ  in the basement of the modern structure built on the site.

The proposed project, ‘The Rose Revealed’, would see the final third of the site excavated, the remains conserved and a new public exhibition space built on the site.

Harvey Sheldon, Chair of the Rose Theatre’s Trustees, said: ‘Plays by Marlowe, Shakespeare, Jonson and Kyd were staged here between 1587 and 1603, and the Rose Theatre is of international importance because of its association with these ground-breaking playwrights and their contributions to language and drama.

‘The excavated archaeological remains are  now at risk of irreparable deterioration. It is thought that the final, unexcavated, third of the site may  reveal further information about the design of the theatre and important artefacts relating to its  architectural features. We welcome the recent discovery of parts of the Curtain Theatre, the shape and  size of which we now know was the same as the initial version of the Rose. However, the only complete  site of an Elizabethan theatre to be available for study is that of the Rose. Our application for a Heritage  Lottery grant is the first step in securing the future of the Rose for further generations to enjoy.”

He added: ‘We hope that the planned conservation programme will secure the future of the buried remains, with an eventual aim that the Rose should be able to be removed from English Heritage’s register of at-risk monuments.’

As MP for Southwark, Simon Hughes  has been involved in the campaign to preserve the Rose since it was first re-discovered in 1988.

‘When I was a little boy acting out MacBeth in my parents’ bedroom I never imagined that I would become MP for Bankside,’ he said. ‘And I certainly never expected that the first person to knock on my door, not 24 hours after being elected, would be Harvey Sheldon, asking for help preserving this piece of local heritage.

‘Our first objective was to stop the bulldozers moving in and to make sure the site was preserved, and then to make sure the building constructed over it would not stop people from seeing it. Our third task was to make sure people knew the Rose was here – and today we have visitors arriving from all over the world.  But our task is not done – we want to complete the archaeological work to reveal the rest of the site so people can appreciate the theatre as they would have done in the Elizabethan age.’

The Rose blossoms

Built in 1587, the Rose was the third Elizabethan playhouse to be built in London, following the construction of the Theatre (see CA 225) and the Curtain (CA 269) in Shoreditch. It was the first theatre built south of the Thames and stood just minutes from where the reconstructed Globe can be seen today.

The Rose is the only one of the Bankside theatres for which the complete foundations survive, and it is also uniquely well-documented,  being the only one for which extensive written records exist, including lists of  almost every play staged there between 1592 and 1602, details of box office receipts and costumes, and  of changes made to the theatre in 1592.

During the original excavations in 1988, Museum of London archaeologists uncovered two thirds of the theatre’s ground plan, including the chalk/stone foundations of its outer and inner walls, the mortar yard where audience members stood, and some sections of brickwork. The foundations of the stage and a large drain were also revealed, together with over 700 artefacts. Many of these can be seen in the Museum of London’s ‘War, Plague, and Fire’ gallery, while more will be on display in the British Museum’s exhibition: ‘Shakespeare: staging the world’ (see CA 269).

Insomniac commandos

This was the first of Shakespeare’s theatres to be  rediscovered, causing tremendous public excitement. An international campaign to save the Rose from destruction was launched, with protests and 24-hour vigils spearheaded by theatrical household names including Sir Laurence Olivier, Dame Peggy Ashcroft, Dustin Hoffman and Patrick Stewart.

Actor and Director Michael Pennington shared his experiences of the ‘insomniac commando group’ that stood guard over the site as the bulldozers moved in.

We were doing everything we could to keep an audience present and raise awareness of what was happening,’ he said. ‘I have an abiding memory of the great Peggy Ashcroft presiding over the protests in a chair like a throne. You just knew that no bulldozer would mess with her. Since then, over the last 23 years we have made incremental progress, we have never been still.

‘Theatres like the Rose shaped the way Shakespeare wrote – the theatre held 2,500 people but its yard was barely 12m across. Shakespeare wrote in a new way, a way that has never been bettered, sweeping from high rhetorical speeches to moments of incredibly intimate human detail. I think he may have got this idea from the Rose, a space where his actors address so many people in a very intimate space.  ‘This is what moves and inspires me – this project is called ‘The Rose Revealed’, but the Rose is revealed whenever you see a great Shakespearean performance.’

Fellow thespian  Dame Janet Suzman also found the campaign inspiring. ‘I feel blazing excitement about this project,’ she said. ‘When I took part in the protests to save the Rose in the 1980s, the last time I had taken to the street was against Apartheid. It was so thrilling not to be fighting an evil but campaigning for something good.  There is nothing like the real thing, and this  is  the real thing.’

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