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The Rose Theatre, Bankside, London

April 7, 2013


OK, so this isn’t a foodie post. Yes I know I always write about food and this was going to be a foodie post (a restaurant review) with the visit to the Rose Theatre tagged on. But the Rose was the highlight and deserves its very own post (the far less interesting food can come later and separately!).

I was meeting up with the great group of people in the Italian Language Meetup Group again; another theatre visit organised by Lucia. This time we were to see Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, in translation from the original Italian into English (which may not have been good for my Italian but at least I knew what was going on!). The Rose it situated near – almost under – Southwark Bridge Road in an area known as Bankside and which was rich in entertainment attractions in the late 16th century: entertainments that included bear baiting, gaming dens and brothels. Then came the Rose Theatre in 1587, only the fifth purpose-built theatre in London and the first in Bankside.

The area is now more popularly known for the nearby Globe Theatre (which was built after the Rose) and which I passed on the way, walking along the southern bank of the Thames from Waterloo. First I went past Tate Modern where a major Lichtenstein Exhibition is now on and I caught a great view of The Shard, architect Renzo Piano’s amazing new 95-storey skyscraper in the City, piercing the clouds and sky.


And the Millenium Bridge with its view of St Paul’s just across the river.


The area was buzzing with people on this Saturday afternoon, the sun finally showing itself after weeks of rain and grey and obviously encouraging everyone out. There were buskers everywhere, children playing, lovers kissing. Spring was definitely in the air! Just past the Tate I came to the Globe.


I saw a sign for the Rose Theatre but soon became lost. (I’d like to say in defence of my navigational skills here that I wasn’t the only one!) I remembered that Lucia had told me there were no toilets at the Rose but one could use the Globe’s, so I knew I had to be very close. I got out my iPhone and asked it where I was. It helped a bit but I felt it was almost by chance that I finally found the Rose Theatre.


Part of my confusion had been that I was looking for a building akin to the Globe. (Indeed, it had once been like that – look at the model below, which I found inside.) But as you can see in the photo above, at the moment it looks nothing like the old theatre from the outside.


Although I’d been warned to wear warm clothes because the Rose is an archaeological site with no heating, I hadn’t realised that ‘site’ was the operative word and there’s very little actual theatre – at the moment! Stepping inside the small, dark entrance, looking for my other Italian speakers, I was warmly welcomed. The theatre is run by volunteers and they were so friendly that it was almost like visiting someone’s home. When it was time for us to go inside the theatre for the performance of the Pirandello play, we were offered blankets to keep ourselves warm and sweets were handed out as treats to go with drinks bought (and these were cheap – my glass of wine only £2.50).


The Rose was rediscovered by Museum of London archaeologists in 1989 while checking the site before the construction of a new office building. The discovery of this Elizabethean playhouse’s ruins excited so much interest that work stopped on the new building and soon there was a huge campaign, including many famous actors and theatre directors, to preserve it. The site of the new office building was moved a bit and the reconstruction of the old theatre began. It’s still far from being a complete theatre; it really is an archaeological site. But how fantastic that they are already using it, making a small stage area, seating only 50 people, and putting on plays like the 1921 Pirandello play as well as new plays, in keeping with the original theatre’s ethos of making space for new talent (and even Shakespeare was new when the Rose was built!). The current ‘stage’ is a wooden platform area that overlooks the main part of the old theatre which has been covered in water to protect the remains while money is raised for proper preservation. This is because once excavation started and the remains were exposed to the air, they started to disintegrate. From the seats in the new stage area, one overlooks a dark ‘pond’.


My photo doesn’t show much, I’m afraid, but when you are there you can sense the size and see the layout of the old theatre. And what was really great was that during last night’s play, at times some of the actors moved over to the far side and the extreme edge was lit up, thus making use of the entire theatre as best they could.

We attended a tour at 4.00 pm. I say ‘tour’ but actually it was watching a short film of the history of the Rose and then being given a short, but very interesting talk: the ‘pond’ area was explained but more importantly, the history and importance of the Rose. This is where Shakespeare’s early plays were first seen; this is where Christopher Marlowe’s plays were put on. We were told that going to the theatre in the late 16th century wasn’t the sedate and civilised affair it is today but more like going to a pop concert. Huge crowds were crushed in, the common folk paying one penny to enter, the richer folk sixpence. Old smoking pipes were found in the remains; food showing that a wide variety of food was consumed, things that may surprise us, but perhaps due to the theatre being on the river and near the docks where goods were brought from faraway places. The Rose’s remains also give us a much greater understanding of how plays were put on in Shakespeare’s time.

I loved the Pirandello play; it was brilliant. A complex tale of six characters abandoned by their author seeking to come to life on stage by hijacking another play. The play evolves into a challenging debate about the nature of relationships, families and truth. It runs till 14 April – so only a little time to get along to the Rose and see it!

The Rose is open to visitors every Saturday from 10.00 to 5.00 and the tour free (though you may want to make a donation). To find out more, and about forthcoming plays and events, visit: I really fell in love with the place and signed on to be a Friend (only £20) as I want to keep in touch with what’s going on with the restoration work and will definitely visit again for more productions.

  1. Jane Coles permalink

    The Rose Theatre should be very grateful for this fascinating and entertaining piece. I’m sure I’d get lost without the directions and the photograph of the facade – which is not at all as I’d imagined. Sorry not to have another delicious recipe but really enjoyed the history and description. Thank you!

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