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Much ado about Shakespeare's wooden O' theatre as wheel comes full circle

PUBLISHED: 22:36 06 August 2008 | UPDATED: 13:30 05 October 2010

Digging up Shakespeare's London... The Theatre at Shoreditch

Digging up Shakespeare's London... The Theatre at Shoreditch

ARCHAEOLOGY experts have unearthed the remains of what is believed to be London's earliest playhouse and Shakespeare's first theatre. The discoveries were made during excavations at Shoreditch, where The Bard and contemporaries like James Burbage would hang out in Elizabethan London. The site is being prepared for a new theatre for Tower Theatre Company. To quote the Bard, "The wheel hath come full circle."

Mike Brooke

ARCHAEOLOGY experts have unearthed the remains of what is believed to be London’s earliest playhouse and Shakespeare’s first theatre.

The discoveries were made during excavations at Shoreditch, where The Bard and contemporaries like James Burbage would hang out in Elizabethan London.

The site is being prepared for a new theatre for Tower Theatre Company.

To quote the Bard, “The wheel hath come full circle.”

It has long been known that an open-air playhouse called The Theatre stood in the area north of East London’s Gt Eastern Street.

But traces of its exact location have been elusive.

The Theatre was a venture run by Burbage, a leading player of his day, almost certainly London’s first and probably the world’s first purpose-built playhouse when it opened in 1576.

It was here that a young Will Shakespeare trod the boards as part of The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, a company of players, and had his first plays performed.

It was after Burbage’s death that his sons faced a dilemma with the end of the lease and discovering the landlord planning to tear down The Theatre.

So they dismantled the building themselves in the dead of night, beam by beam, and transported the timbers across the Thames to build the more famous Globe theatre at Southwark in 1599, where Shakespeare found more glory as a playwright.

The brick foundations remained behind, however, buried in Shoreditch for four centuries—until now.

Archaeologists from the Museum of London have unearthed what appears to be part of a polygonal structure at the site at New Inn Broadway, off Curtain-road.

The shape, age and location of these remains all point to Burbage’s lost theatre, which followed a design described in the narrative of Shakespeare’s Henry V as, “This wooden O.”

Round the corner from the site is thought to be where another theatre once stood where Shakespeare staged his plays, The Curtain, where Curtain-road takes its name.

“We’re walking in the footsteps of Shakespeare himself,” said museum senior archaeologist Jo Lyon.

“It’s exciting being so close to the known location of The Theatre and finding remains associated with it.

“The remains help us uncover one of London’s enduring secrets. We can now start to work on the detail of what The Theatre might have looked like and expand our knowledge of the playhouses of Elizabethan London.”

There’s more on the museum’s website:

www.museumoflondon.org.uk

The discovery even took the Tower Theatre Company by surprise. It was creating a community facility for East London and now finds it is “bringing public theatre back to its historic Elizabethan roots.”

Its chairman Jeff Kelly said: “Realising we shall be building a 21st century playhouse where Shakespeare and Burbage played and where some of Shakespeare’s plays must first have been performed is a huge inspiration.”

The company has already begun talks with Town Hall planners at Hackney and is soon lodging a formal planning application, as well as working with English Heritage to make sure the design enables the archaeological findings to be retained on the site.

The next step is raising the remaining £3 million to complete the project.

Tower Theatre has staged nearly 1,400 productions since it was established in 1933, putting on as many as 18 a year, mostly in London.

It is entirely self-supporting and receives no grants for day-to-day expenses.

Tower Theatre’s website is:

www.towertheatre.org.uk

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