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Shakespeare in Shoreditch: a statue and The Stage

A statue and visitor centre for The Theatre and The Curtain playhouse sites.

William Shakespeare by Raphael Maklouf, assisted by Hayley Gibbs

The Theatre and The Curtain, both in Shoreditch, were closely associated with William Shakespeare in the late 16th century. Modern property developments and open space improvements acknowledge Shakespeare's Shoreditch legacy.

 

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New Inn Broadway, a small side street of Curtain Road in Shoreditch, was the site of one of London's first purpose built theatres. Simply called The Theatre, it was built by carpenter turned actor and theatre manager James Burbage in 1576 on land once occupied by a medieval nunnery, Holywell Priory.


By 1594 The Theatre's resident troupe of actors, led by Burbage, was the Lord Chamberlain's men. The troupe's principal playwright was a certain William Shakespeare, who had already worked there for some years.

A theatre in The View of London from the North, drawn between 1577 and 1598

Picture above, source: Museum of London Archaeology/Tower Theatre Company booklet 2008


The Theatre was probably the second purpose built theatre in London, as a theatre in Whitechapel called the Red Lion is thought to have been completed in 1567. It was built for John Brayne, a member of the Grocers' Company and brother-in-law to James Burbage. It may not have lasted beyond one summer season.


Brayne became Burbage's partner in The Theatre in Shoreditch. Like the Red Lion, it was built also outside the City walls, away from puritanical anti-theatre views of the City fathers.


Unlike the Red Lion, The Theatre continued for 20 years and is famed for its strong historic connection with William Shakespeare. An actor as well as a writer, he is known to have trod the boards at The Theatre and it is very likely that some of his early plays were first staged there.


In 1596/97 James Burbage fell into a dispute with the landlord, Giles Allen, who owned the site but not the building. The Chamberlain's Men stopped performing at The Theatre at this time and risked losing their playhouse entirely.


Now led by James Burbage's sons Richard and Cuthbert after the death of their father, The Chamberlain's Men instructed their carpenter Peter Street, assisted by 12 workmen, to dismantle The Theatre in December 1598.


Some deceit was required, as Giles Allen would have tried to prevent the removal of the building if he had known what was happening, so Street told onlookers that he was carrying out restoration work. After taking down the structure, he stored the timbers for the winter at his yard near the former Bridewell Palace close to the Thames at Blackfriars.


The Chamberlain's Men had already secured a lease on land in Southwark, south of the river, where they took the structures from The Theatre to be recycled into a new, larger playhouse.


Named The Globe, this new theatre was completed by the summer of 1599.

The arrival in Southwark of the Lord Chamberlain's Men prompted the departure from that area of competitor company the Admiral's Men, who had based themselves at The Rose theatre. This company's leading actor, Edward Alleyne, was the only rival to Richard Burbage for the title of best actor of his generation.


The Rose's proprietor, Philip Henslowe, commissioned Peter Street to construct another new theatre, The Fortune, for the Admiral's Men north of the City walls. This was built between Golden Lane and Whitecross Street, only a short distance west of Shoreditch.


A second theatre in Shoreditch, The Curtain, had been built in 1577 just 200 yards south of The Theatre. Slightly disappointingly, its name did not refer to the now traditional cloth screen that divides actors from audience before and after a play. It was named after the nearby Curtain Close, itself a reference to the curtain wall of Holywell Priory.


Unlike The Theatre and The Globe, which were polygonal in shape, The Curtain was rectangular (as was The Fortune).


For some time the Chamberlain's Men used The Curtain as an overspill when demand for productions at The Theatre was high. In the period 1597-1599, when the Burbages were no longer using The Theatre and before the construction of The Globe, The Curtain became their main venue.


It is possible that Romeo and Juliet may have had its first performance at The Curtain, although this may also have been at The Theatre. Either way, The Curtain would certainly have staged the famous play about two young lovers as well as Shakespeare's two Henry IV plays. The first staging of Henry V was likely either at The Curtain or The Globe.


The two Shoreditch theatres are less famous today than The Globe, but were crucial in the early development of Elizabethan theatre and the career of William Shakespeare. Although their existence had long been known, evidence of the two buildings only came to light in relatively recent years.


Part of the foundations of The Theatre were discovered by archaeologists in 2008. Among the artefacts found on the site were a mug with the image of a bearded gentleman.


Also discovered were pottery money boxes, used to keep ticket revenues safe until they were broken to retrieve the coins. These boxes were kept in the box office (the origin of the term).


When the remains of The Theatre were first discovered, there was a plan by the Tower Theatre Company, a leading non-professional group, to build a modern theatre there.


However, this fell through and the site remained undeveloped for several years until 2020 when a new building containing office and exhibition space was completed.


The photos below show the site on New Inn Broadway in 2015 (the first photo on the left was a look through a gap in the hoarding, while the second was the view from the street) and in 2020 (right).

Named The Box Office, the building arose just as the covid-19 pandemic struck, pushing back the opening of the development. It aimed to host Shakespeare-related events and exhibitions of artefacts from the late 16th and early 17th centuries, while offering a view of what remains visible of The Theatre.


Although lockdown restrictions are now long gone, the development does not yet appear to be fully up and running.


However, a mural on an adjacent building inspired by Romeo and Juliet and improvements to the street have been completed.

In addition a seated statue of Shakespeare sits outside the site. The bronze of the Bard on a bench was made by sculptor Raphael Maklouf, with assistance from Hayley Gibbs, with work starting in 2018.

A seated Shakespeare surveys The Theatre site on New Inn Broadway

Raphael Maklouf is a prolific sculptor and painter, born in 1937 in Jerusalem to a Jewish family that came to the UK after World War II. He studied at Camberwell School of Art 1953-58 and became an Associate of the Royal Society of British Sculptors in 1979.


Raphael Maklouf designed the effigy of Queen Elizabeth II used on coins in the UK and many Commonwealth countries from 1985 to 1997. He has also created sculptures of the late Queen and Prince Philip, Margaret Thatcher and Bobby Moore. His company The Tower Mint has produced work for Balmoral, Kensington Palace, the Tower of London, Windsor Castle, Alton Towers, the British Library and Gloucester and Hereford Cathedrals.


Hayley Gibbs lives and works in London. She studied fine Art (Sculpture) and the University of Brighton (graduating in 2009) and Historic Carving (Stone) at City & Guilds London Art School (2018). According to her website, she is particularly interested in exploring the representation of the human figure in historic architecture and the modern public space.


I spotted the Shakespeare statue inside the building on New Inn Broadway during the covid pandemic back in July 2020, complete with its own facemask and shoe covers as PPE to protect against covid-19. Shakespeare himself experienced lockdowns during more than one plague year in London, including in 1592/1594 when The Theatre and other London playhouses were closed.

William Shakespeare by Raphael Maklouf, assisted by Hayley Gibbs, inside the Box Office on New Inn Broadway in 2020
The Shakespeare statue inside the Box Office in July 2020

Later in 2020, I again came across the statue sitting on a bench in the churchyard outside Southwark Cathedral, where it was on loan.

The author on a bench with the Bard outside Southwark Cathedral in 2020. Photo: Annemarie Fearnley

The remains of The Curtain theatre were discovered in 2012 and excavated between then and 2016.


A recently completed development, called The Stage, consisting of two office buildings and a high rise block of flats, now stand around the site.


Three older buildings have survived this development on Curtain Road, including the Horse and Groom pub with its mural depicting two entwined lovers (a reference to Romeo and Juliet).


A Shakespeare-themed visitor centre, the Pavillion, stands above The Curtain's archaeological remains, but is not yet complete.

One side of this Pavillion there are tiny bird-shaped windows, allusions to the nightingale and lark representing night and day in Romeo and Juliet, symbols that the two lovers can never be together. A relevant portion of the text from this play is inscribed on an adjacent wall.

I was recently able to glimpse part of the archaeological site below ground level through the bird peep holes.


It is not clear exactly when The Box Office on The Theatre site will be fully open, and to what extent the archaeological remains will be open to the public. The Stage's visitor centre at The Curtain site will definitely be open to the public, but I am not sure of its opening date.


What is certain, however, is that Shoreditch is now paying very visible homage to its Shakespearean past after 400 years.

 

You may also be interested to read Shakespeare, the First Folio and the City of London

 

Shakespeare 400 walk 8 November 2023

I will be leading a tour of a number of important Shakespeare sites in the City of London on 8 November on behalf of London Metropolitan Archives. The walk will explore how London left its mark on Shakespeare and his work and how he left his mark on the City.


The tour starts at 2pm in Guildhall Yard and will be preceded at 1.30pm by a chance to look at a 400 year old copy of the First Folio collection of Shakespeare's plays in the Heritage Gallery inside Guildhall Art Gallery. Please note that Shoreditch is not part of this tour. Tickets can be booked here.

 

London On The Ground tours and events available for booking

For a full schedule of London On The Ground tours and events, please click here.

 

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