A contemporary of William Shakespeare (and hence, given our current focus on Shakespeare, the reason why we’re featuring him), Philip Henslowe was a theatre owner and impresario who, along with John Chomley, built the Rose Theatre in Bankside.

Henslowe is believed to have been born in about 1550 and was the son of Edmund Henslowe, master of the game at Ashdown Forest in Sussex. He is known to have moved to London in the 1570s and there became an apprentice to dyer Henry Woodward. Marrying Woodward’s widow Agnes, from 1577 Henslowe lived in Southwark – in the Liberty of the Clink – where, along with other business interests including bringing in timber from Sussex, he is known to have been a prominent landlord.

He and Chomley built The Rose Theatre – the first theatre in Bankside – in 1587 on land Henslowe had purchased several years earlier and from 1591 onwards, he partnered with the acting company known as the Admiral’s Men (they had parted ways with theatre owner James Burbage after a dispute about money). In fact it was the company’s leading actor, the renowned Edward Alleyn, who married Henslowe’s step-daughter Joan.

Following the arrival of the rival Globe Theatre in Bankside in the late 1590s, Henslowe decided to make a move and built the Fortune Theatre in the north-west corner of the City which subsequently became home to the Admiral’s Men. He is also believed to have had interests in several other theatres – Newington Butts, the Swan and more latterly, the Hope in Paris Garden, a versatile facility which could be used as both animal-baiting ring and theatre.

His prominence in business matters led to many rewards including serving as a Groom of the Chamber during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and the delightfully named Gentleman Sewer of the Chamber during the reign of King James I.

He died in 1616, leaving behind a diary which spans the period 1592 to 1609 – it includes mention of performances of many of Shakespeare’s plays and although the Bard himself doesn’t get a mention, many of his contemporaries – Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson included – do. The diary – which had been written in an old account book and provides great detail of Henslowe’s theatre-related business – passed into the care of Dulwich College which his son-in-law had founded.

Click here to buy Henslowe’s Diary.

While the association between the Bard and Bankside’s Globe Theatre is well known (see our earlier post here for more), the Bard and his plays were also performed in various other theatres around London. Here we take a quick look at a couple in Shoreditch, then a more rural suburb of London known for its associations with the (somewhat seedy) entertainment industry…

The-Theatre The Theatre, Shoreditch. Built in 1576 by James Burbage on property that had once been part of Holywell Priory, the Theatre was the home of a number of acting companies including The Lord Chamberlain’s Men of which Shakespeare was a member. The polygon-shaped theatre served as the home of the company between 1594 and 1598 when a dispute with a landlord over the lease led them to leave, temporarily settling at The Curtain Theatre, before rebuilding their theatre, now renamed The Globe, in Southwark. Between 2008 and 2010, archaeologists from Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) carried out an investigation beneath a disused warehouse in New Inn Broadway, near the intersection of Curtain Road and Great Eastern Street, and found the remains of a 14 sided theatre about 22 metres across. Plans have been mooted to build a new theatre on the site. To find out more about The Theatre and see a terrific animated recreation by Cloak & Dagger Studios and MOLA (pictured), head to www.explorethetheatre.co.uk. PICTURE: Courtesy of MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology) and Cloak and Dagger Studios.

The Curtain Theatre, Shoreditch. The Lord Chamberlain’s Men only performed here temporarily, between 1598-1599, before relocating to Southwark. Henry V (the reference to “this wooden O” in the prologue of the play is taken to refer to this theatre) and Romeo and Juliet are believed to be among Shakespeare’s plays which premiered here. Located just a couple of hundred yards south of The Theatre and built the year after it, it also hosted Ben Jonson’s Every Man in his Humour, a play in which Shakespeare is known to have performed. The polygonal theatre’s name comes from the road on which it stood – Curtain Road, which, it has been suggested, was named after the Holywell Priory’s ‘curtain wall’. It continued as a theatre until the 1620s and was later converted into tenements. The remains of what is believed to have been the Curtain Theatre were found by MOLA archaeologists in 2012 and further excavations are expected with the hope that one day the site will be open to the public with plays performed here. There is a plaque commemorating the site at 18 Hewett Street which is only a short distance from where the excavations were carried out. For more on the Curtain Theatre, check out www.shakespearesshoreditch.com.

For more on Elizabethan theatres, see Julian Bowsher’s Shakespeare’s London Theatreland: Archaeology, History and Drama.

Located on the site of the former Blackfriars Monastery which has closed during the Dissolution (see our earlier post here), the origins of the Blackfriars Playhouse or Theatre go back to the mid-1570s when children connected with the Queen’s Chapel Choir performed plays in part of the former monastery.

While those plays were performed in order to practice for those performed before Queen Elizabeth I, the organisers did also apparently use the theatre for paying audiences. This first theatre ceased operation in 1584.

In 1596, part of the priory and an adjoining building were bought by James Burbage in 1596 who created a playhouse within them. It was used by the Children of the Chapel, a group of choristers and other boys, until 1608 when the King’s Men took over – with Burbage’s son Richard and Shakespeare among those who had a share in the theatre – and used it as their winter playhouse.

The theatre – where Shakespeare himself is believed to have performed – was apparently the first commercial premises of its type to used artificial lighting and, usually for the time, featured music between acts.

The wife of King Charles I, Queen Henrietta Maria, is known to have attended the theatre later in its life in 1634 and again a couple of years later.

The theatre closed with the commencement of the English Civil War and the theatre was demolished in 1655.

The candle-lit Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, which opened in January at the Globe Theatre on Bankside, was designed based on drawings of indoor theatres of the era (there’s also a recreation of the Blackfriars Playhouse in the US which is home to the acting troupe of the American Shakespeare Center).

While nothing remains of the playhouse today, it lives on in the name Playhouse Yard.

The-GlobeMention William Shakespeare and London in the same breath and everyone immediately thinks of one building – the reconstructed Globe on Bankside. So we thought that to kick off our new series – being run in honour of the 450th anniversary of the playwright’s birth – we’d take a look at history of the iconic structure.

The-Globe2The original Globe Theatre, located a few hundred metres to the south, opened in 1599 as a home for the actors’ company known as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (later renamed the King’s Men on the accession of King James I in 1603), of which Shakespeare was a member. Founded by James Burbage, this merry band was originally was housed at London’s first purpose-built playhouse Shoreditch before lease disputes led them to establish a new theatre in Southwark, close to the then existing theatre, The Rose.

Up and running by 1599 (Shakespeare was among four actors who bought a share in the property to help fund the new building which used timbers from the former Shoreditch theatre), the new theatre was used for 14 years until, during a performance of Henry VIII in 1613, wadding from a stage cannon ignited and the theatre burned to the ground. Rebuilt with a tiled roof, it remained the home of the company until it was closed down by the Puritan government in 1642 and demolished two years later.

You can see the original site of The Globe just in nearby Park Street. The shape of the structure is marked by a dark line embedded in the pavement (pictured).

The reconstructed building which stands proudly by the water today was the vision of the late American actor, director and producer, Sam Wanamaker. He founded the Shakespeare Globe Trust which, with the on-site assistance of Queen Elizabeth II, opened the theatre at its current site in 1997 (sadly, Wanamaker had died three-and-a-half-years previously).

The building’s design was drawn from sifting through what little historical evidence could be found including the findings of an archaeological dig at the original site, descriptions contained in Shakespeare’s plays (including the line from Henry V – “Or may we cram within this wooden ‘O’), and printed panoramas from the time, although it should be noted that much – particularly the design of the stage – is speculative.

Meanwhile the techniques used in the construction of the theatre were the subject of years of research and were in accord with those of the early 17th century  and included using oak laths and staves to support lime plaster and then covering the walls in white lime wash while the roof was made of water reed thatch.

One of the best ways to see the theatre and make the most of the atmosphere is to see a play from a standing position in the pit!

WHERE: Globe Theatre Exhibition & Tour, Shakespeare’s Globe, 21 New Globe Walk (nearest Tube stations are Southwark and London Bridge); WHEN: Exhibition is open 9am to 5.30pm daily – tours run at various times, see website for details; COST: Exhibition and tour cost is £13.50 adults/£12 seniors/£11 students/£8 children (5-15 with children under five free)/£36 family of four; WEBSITE: www.shakespearesglobe.com.

The origins of the name Shoreditch – now a slowly gentrifying area to the north of the City of London within the Borough of Hackney – are lost to time but there are a few interesting theories around.

While the name probably comes to us as a derivation of Soersditch or Sewer Ditch – perhaps in reference to a drain that was once here – a more tragic version has it named after Jane Shore.

A mistress of King Edward IV in the mid to late fifteenth century, she, so the story goes, was buried in a ditch in the area after dying in a state of penury following a dramatic fall from favour during the subsequent reign of King Richard III (the king apparently had Jane arrested and made her perform a public penance for being a harlot).

There was an important priory here – the Augustinian Priory of Holywell – in medieval times and by Elizabethan times, some substantial houses. In 1576, James Burbage built England’s first theatre – known as The Theatre – on its site located near Curtain Road. Some of William Shakespeare’s plays were performed here and at the nearby rival, the Curtain Theatre, before a dispute with the landlord in the late 16th century saw the theatre relocated to Southwark in the dead of night (although the foundations must have remained – these were excavated a few years ago). Both Shakespeare and follow playwright Christopher Marlowe had associations with the area.

The area, which centred on St Leonard’s Church (while the current building dates from around 1740, there is believed to have been a church here  – at the intersection of Shoreditch High Street and Hackney Road – since Saxon times), become known for its textiles in the 17th century and later for its furniture industries.

It was still known as one of London’s premier entertainment districts in the late 19th and early 20th centuries with well known music halls and theatres but by then was also just as well known for its poverty.

Shoreditch suffered heavily during the Blitz and while the area continues to suffer from urban decay there is now some new life being breathed into it with the arrival of projects as the Boxpark Shoreditch which, made from shipping containers, is billed as “the world’s first pop-up mall”. There’s also an annual festival, the Shoreditch Festival, held in summer along Regent’s Canal.

PICTURE: View down Shoreditch High Street to the City – © David Adams.