Birkbeck Archaeological Society: Shakespeare's Secret Playhouse

Friday 01-12-2017 - 11:41

Last Friday, we headed all the way back in time to the 16th century, to find out all about the dramatic history of the ‘lost’ Tudor theatre: The Rose Playhouse.

Suzanne Marie Taylor-Birkbeck Archaeology Society Member, Anthony Lewis and Siegffried Loew-Walker co-funded and produced their own half-hour documentary film about The Rose featuring a wide variety of academics, activists and actors including Ian McKellen, and the final product was screened here at Birkbeck for the first time.

The documentary takes a light-hearted, amusing take on the trials and tribulations of both the Theatre’s Elizabethan heyday and the efforts taken by activists to revive and save The Rose. The "Save The Rose" campaign in the late 1980s against the bulldozing and building-over of the site are a source of particularly amazing anecdotes. Perhaps the most notable of these was McKellen's account of Dame Judi Dench and Dame Peggy Ashcroft standing in front of the bulldozers to prevent their destruction of the beloved theatrical relic. This huge public outcry eventually spurred a U-Turn from the government, who recalled the construction crews and pledged £1m in funds to delay the redevelopment of the site to allow time for an agreement to be made on how The Rose should be preserved. 

This said, probably the most amazing thing we learned is that the Rose has once again, become a performance space. Whilst a full restoration is not yet complete - productions of Shakespeare’s works-especially his earlier plays such as Henry VI part I-in which Suzanne Marie Taylor played the role of Joan La Pucelle, are currently being performed in the space, and one day the completion of the archaeological dig will take place.


(From left to right back row: Julian Bowsher; Julianna Závodszki; Siegffried Loew-Walker. From left to right front row: Dr Jane Sidell; Jean Ponder; Suzanne Marie Taylor; Clerk Colin Middlemiss-The company of Watermen and Lightermen; Anthony Lewis )

Members of Birkbeck’s Archaeology society have been very supportive of Rose volunteer and actress Suzanne Marie Taylor and of The Rose Playhouse, by visiting the site and attending performances. Performances at The Rose attempt to provide audiences with that same sense of magic that would have beguiled audiences five centuries ago.

After the documentary, there followed a series of enlightening talks from Julian Bowsher-Senior Finds Specialist-The Museum of London Archaeology, and Dr Jane Sidell-Inspector of Ancient Monuments-Historic England. One interesting point of note was that the site actually pioneered a specific method of preservation - draining and replacing the water flooding the bottom of the site with fresh water on a monthly basis - to prevent colonies of microorganisms from feeding on the building’s fragile brick and chalk skeleton.

Amongst the audience, we were even lucky to have one of the original protesters - Jean Ponder speaking of how she was involved with the Save The Rose campaign in 1989. We were regaled with anecdotes about how people would run over on their lunch-breaks to come and provide hot food and drinks to protesters. We also had an original CD-Single of the soft-rock ballad produced at the time as a rallying call to protesters and the general public. It remains something of a curio; at the time of writing we can’t find any record of it online!

All in all the event was a fantastic insight into an extremely important part of English cultural theatrical history. Vastly entertaining and informative, Birkbeck’s Archaeology Society's support of The Rose Playhouse has been a joy to behold.

You can view the documentary in full here

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