Tag Archives: Richard Burbage

Shakespeare’s Two Playhouses

9781316640326

I am currently greatly enjoying reading “Shakespeare’s Two Playhouses” by Sarah Dustagheer (Cambridge University Press, 2017) …

The two performance spaces in question are the “Globe” playhouse on Bankside in Southwark, and the less well-known – Second – “Blackfriars” in the City.

The “Blackfriars” was purpose- built or -adapted  by James and Richard  Burbage in 1596-1600, on the site of the Parliament Hall of the dissolved Blackfriars Priory (*).  It was a covered theatre, and was able to be used by theatre companies throughout the year, including in the  winter,  when the open-air “Globe” playhouse  was rendered unusable by bad weather.   It was also an “all-seater”,  seating 6-700 in some – although not much – comfort, and charging a minimum of 6d a head (in contrast, the “Globe” seated or stood more (2-3000), but charged much less (1d a head)).  In time, the theatre became extremely popular with the fashionable set, and equally profitable.    In 1608, it came to be part owned by Shakespeare’s acting company,  “the “King’s Men” (formerly the “Lord Chamberlain’s Men”), and became, with the “Globe”, their joint home.  The theatre was eventually closed down by the Puritans in 1642; and demolished in 1655.

On a plot adjoining the reconstructed Elizabethan “Globe” on Bankside is a modern replica of a Jacobean theatre,  named the “Wanamaker”.  Its design was in part based on a set of plans once – although no longer – thought to have been of the “Second Blackfriars”, and its interior conveys a real sense of what that theatre would have been like.  A   sense of enclosed space, of intimacy, of proximity to the players, of exclusiveness perhaps.  Of  being surrounded by the shadowy  light of dancing candles and reflecting costume jewellery.  And, perhaps even more particularly,  of being surrounded by sound, and in interludes by the sound of music.  Note in this context that the music in certain of Shakespeare’s later  plays, such as  “A Winter’s Tale”, “Cymbeline” and “The Tempest”, was not only well suited to, but probably also  specifically written for, performance in the indoor arena of the “Second Blackfriars”.

(*) Here in  1529 an earlier  high drama was enacted when the  Legatine Court, under  the Papal Legate, Cardinal Lorenzo Campeggio, and King Henry VIII’s representative, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey,  met  to discuss Henry’s   proposed divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon – eventually ruling against any such action.

St Leonard Shoreditch (aka St Saviour-in-the-Marshes)

The present church of St Leonard Shoreditch

St Leonard, Shoreditch had its origins at least as long ago as  the twelfth century, sometime before 1150, although the present church, by George Dance the Elder, dates only to the eighteenth, to 1736-40.  Essentially nothing remains of the Medieval church, although plans have recently been announced to undertake an archaeological survey in search of it, under Prof. Maurizio Seracini of the University of California, San Diego, an expert in non-invasive investigation of historical sites and artworks (best known for his research on a long-lost Leonardo da Vinci mural in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence).

The old church, from a print of 1735

The old church, from a print of 1735

An engraving of the church still survives, from  1735, i.e., just before it was demolished and rebuilt, which shows some apparently fifteenth-century features, possibly associated with the chantry chapel of Sir John Elrington, known to have been founded in 1482.

Richard Burbage

Richard Burbage

It is known as “The Actors’ Church”, on account of the number of theatricals buried here, many of whom performed at the nearby “The Theatre” and “The Curtain Theatre” in Shoreditch in the post-Medieval period.  Among them are Henry VIII’s jester Will Sommers, who died in 1560; the actor Gabriel Spencer, who was killed in a duel with Ben Jonson in Hoxton in 1598; and three members of the Burbage family, the impresario, James, who built “The Theatre” in 1576, and died in 1597, and his sons Cuthbert, who built “The Globe Theatre” in Southwark in 1597, and died in 1636,  and actor Richard, famous for his “Hamlet”, who died in 1619.

The actors' memorial in the interior, erected by the London Shakespeare League in 1913

The actors’ memorial in the interior, erected by the London Shakespeare League in 1913

One might now also describe it as an acting church, characterfully inhabiting the role of St Saviour-in-the-Marshes in the irreverend (I’m sorry) sitcom “Rev”.

The present church of St Leonard Shoreditch

The present church of St Leonard Shoreditch