Audiences around the world know Shakespeare’s Globe, Sam Wannamaker’s late-1990s reconstruction of the theatre that made Shakespeare famous, on London’s Southbank. Fewer people know of The Rose Playhouse, the first purpose-built Elizabethan theatre constructed on the marshy land south of the Thames. Now tucked away on a small street behind the Globe, the Rose is a unique performance space with a history just as important as its more popular neighbour.
Opened in 1597, Philip Henslowe managed the original Rose Playhouse. When Henslowe’s daughter married celebrated actor Edward Allyn, founder of Dulwich College, in 1592, the theatre subsequently enjoyed several years of success. Its repertoire included works by Shakespeare, Kyd and Marlowe, but its popularity declined once The Globe and other larger theatres relocated to the area, outside of the city’s jurisdiction. By 1603, The Rose had fallen into disuse.
Fortunately, later developments did not damage the theatre’s foundations and it was rediscovered during building demolition in 1988. Archaeologists had excavated about 2/3 of the site in 1989. At this time, the Rose Theatre Trust was formed to protect its historical importance. A publicity and fundraising campaign succeeded in the foundation’s preservation and creation of a small performance space that overlooks the rope-lit site. Along with regular open days, The Rose presents lecture series, scratch nights and fringe theatre productions.
In its current form, The Rose is not a typical theatre. A small, wooden platform overlooks a large pool of temperature-controlled water that covers the original foundations. It’s on that platform that audiences sit around a performance area. Some directors choose to use the concrete slopes around the pool, which is able to be lit and provides opportunities for site-specific work. It is a shame not to use the vast expanse of water behind the stage, even in reference, because there is no other theatre in London like it.
It’s not the most comfortable fringe theatre I’ve attended due to its lack of heating and toilets, but a dedicated team of volunteers supply fleece blankets in winter and point you in the direction of The Globe, with which they have a close relationship and share facilities. The historical importance and distinctive atmosphere more than compensate for these shortcomings, and money generated from their events go towards the ‘Rose Revealed’ project which will see the rest of the foundation excavated.
Not all of their productions are Shakespeare, but most are or are by his contemporaries. Still others are classical, but rarely have I seen a modern production there. The presence of the ancient ruins doesn’t particularly lend itself to present day language and themes, though the programming does not shy away from attempts to innovate. Next up is Heady Conduct Theatre’s Reckless, a new play using Greek and Elizabethan performance elements to tell the seaside story. After that is a gender-bending Twelfth Night, where “a company of actors will rotate four vibrant 90 minute versions…All female, all male, cast play own gender, cast play opposite gender.”
Typical to fringe theatre across London, the quality can vary but the setting and atmosphere is one-of-a-kind. Drop in to one of their open days or an event to see the actual remains of a theatre that produced Shakespeare’s works rather than solely favouring the replica ‘wooden O’ up the road.