It might not be blessed with the most imaginative of names, but Shoreditch’s The Theatre has an illustrious history. For this is the venue where one William Shakespeare, the author of some of the greatest works in the English language, honed his craft. The Theatre is thought to be the venue for the first ever performance of Romeo and Juliet.
Although the building was demolished many centuries ago, a forthcoming show is seeking to shine a light on the period, in a purpose built exhibition space built on the site of the old theatre.
The Theatre was founded in 1576 by the celebrated Elizabethan actor/director James Burbage. The cost of construction was £700, a princely sum for the period. The money came from Burbage’s brother in law John Brayne, a fact that would lead to much disagreement later on.
Built on the site of an old priory, the venue was described by Tudor writer John Stow as a house for “comedies, tragedies and histories for recreation”.
15th century London
The idea of a permanent theatre was a novel one in 15th century London, with playhouses strictly forbidden within the city. Therefore, Burbage sought a site outside of the city and he finally settled on Shoreditch.
In the 16th century Shoreditch was undoing profound changes with the 12th century Augustinian priory dissolved and the area increasingly being used for urban development.
Although Shakespeare is intimately connected to the area, the connection was not widely acknowledged until the last few years. We do know however that the playwright was a member of the Lord Chamberlain’s men who performed at the theatre in the 1590s.
The Lord Chamberlain’s Men
The company was one of the two most significant acting troupes in London and by the early 1600s they had come to the attention of the monarch King James I who subsequently offered them patronage. During this period the company held exclusive rights to perform Shakespeare’s plays.
Unfortunately, the Theatre had only obtained a twenty year lease from the venue’s landlord Giles Allen, and as the Burbage and his sons tried to renegotiate this, the father died, leaving Richard and to wrangle with the landlord.
During this period of dispute, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men moved to the nearby Curtain theatre. Later, when the Burbages finally gave up on winning the rights to continue using their theatre, they decided to dismantle the place instead and take it with them. This has led to the legend that the theatre was dismantled in one night on the 28th of December 1598. It’s a good story but one that historians are increasingly finding untrue. What is true however is that the timbers rescued from the Theatre were eventually used to build a theatre on the Southbank. That theatre was christened The Globe.
The new exhibition will offer visitors to the site a chance to view the original foundations of The Theatre. The site was excavated in 2008 by archaeologists from the Museum of London who have sensitively conserved what they have found. Alongside this, a plethora of artefacts from the period, unearthed in the archaeological work on the site, will be available to view for the first time. Broken beer flagons, pottery money boxes and the remains of medieval food stuffs will all be showcased in the exhibition.
Street art evoking the period is already in place with a stunning mural depicting Romeo and Juliet emblazoned on the wall of a property near the venue for the new exhibition.