Recently added to the National Heritage List for England (or what little remains of it at least), the Hope Playhouse was the last Elizabethan era theatre to be built in Southwark and was designed to be a joint acting venue and bear baiting arena.

bear-gardensThe theatre, which opened in about 1614, was built by impresario Philip Henslowe, who had built the Rose Playhouse in 1587 and the Fortune in 1600, and new partners a waterman Jacob Meade and carpenter Gilbert Katherens on a site slightly to the south of the Bear Garden (demolished in 1613) which had previously housed been dog kennels.

Designed deliberately to be similar to The Swan Playhouse in Paris Garden, the stage was apparently located on the south side of the structure with the main entrance located opposite on the riverside of the building. Upper galleries provided more salubrious seating for those who could afford it.

The first play to be staged there was Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair, performed by Lady Elizabeth’s Company on 31st October, 1614 – in the play Jonson famously refers to the dual use of the playhouse by likening the smell to that of the animals at Smithfield Market.

The relationship of the theatre with acting, however, was to be short-lived. Bear-baiting and other past-times gradually took over the use of the playhouse despite the fact it had originally been envisaged that animal baiting would only be held on Sundays and Thursdays.

Tensions between the actors and other groups eventually led to Lady Elizabeth’s Company departing the playhouse in 1617, although another company, the Prince Charles’s Men, continued to use it for a few more years). Henslowe, meanwhile, had died in 1616 and his share of the property had passed to his son-in-law (and actor) Edward Alleyn (who was also the founder of the Prince Charles’s Men).

Very few plays were subsequently seen at the playhouse which, by 1620, had become known by the name Bear Garden – a reference to the former property which had stood to the north. Bear and bull-baiting as well as prize-fighting and fencing contests were apparently among the activities carried out there.

The Hope was ordered closed by Parliament in 1643 but survived until 1656 when, during the Civil War, it was closed and dismantled. Industrial buildings, including glass-blowing workshops, were later constructed over the top.

PICTURE: The street known as Bear Gardens in Southwark is near the site of the former Hope Playhouse.

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.

Last week we had a look at two former theatres in Shoreditch which had strong associations to William Shakespeare and in previous weeks we’ve talked about both The Globe and Blackfriars Playhouse. So this week we thought we’d wrap up our look at Elizabethan theatres with a brief glance at a couple of other theatrical establishments which may have had some association with The Bard…

The Rose. Built by Philip Henslowe in 1587, the theatre is located close to where The Globe later stood in Bankside. Many companies performed here – including Lord Strange’s Men in 1592 when, according to some, Shakespeare may have been the actors in the company. The theatre’s remains are open to the public. For more on The Rose, you can see our earlier Lost London entry.

The Swan. Built by Francis Langley in the mid 1590s in the Paris Gardens area in the west of Bankside, The Swan was the most impressive of London’s theatres when first constructed due to both its size – it’s believed to have held an audience as big as 3,000 people – and the manner of its construction. It’s a matter of debate whether the Lord Chamberlain’s Men – the acting troupe Shakespeare was a part of – ever performed here while waiting for the Globe to be built. By the early 1630s, the theatre had apparently fallen into disrepair.

Newington Butts. In use from 1580, this theatre was located in Surrey (the name is now preserved in that of the street still known as Newington Butts just to the south of the Elephant & Castle roundabout). Little is known about the theatre but it’s believed the Lord Chamberlain’s Men played here in the mid 1590s and apparently gave their earliest known performances of a number of Shakespeare’s plays including Titus Andronicus and The Taming of the Shrew took place. Butts were typically used in the national sport of archery but that may not apparently be the explanation behind the name here which may instead refer to an odd-shaped area of land.

For more on Elizabethan theatre, check out Elizabethan-Jacobean Drama: The Theatre in its Time.

First opened in 1587, The Rose was one of the first purpose-built theatres in London and the first Elizabethan theatre in Bankside, then an area noted for its entertainments including gambling dens, bear and bull baiting pits, and brothels.

The theatre was built for businessman and theatre developer, Philip Henslowe, and his partner John Cholmley, and subsequently hosted plays including Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta and Shakespeare’s Henry VI part I and Titus Andronicus. Among the actors was Edward Alleyn, Henslowe’s son-in-law, while among the companies which performed there were Lord Strange’s Men, Sussex’s Men, the Queen’s Men and the Admiral’s Men.

Its success led to the building of rival theatres in the area including The Swan in 1595 and The Globe in 1599. It had apparently fallen out of use by 1603 and was abandoned soon after.

The theatre fell out of history until the late 1980s when, following the demolition of a 1950s office block, archaeologists from the Museum of London uncovered the remains of much of the theatre’s floorplan, revealing that it was a smallish many sided structure based on a 14-sided polyhedron. A campaign to save the remains was launched – attracting support from acting luminaries including Sir Laurence Olivier and Peggy Ashcroft – and much of the site was preserved from development.

Some 700 objects, including jewellery, coins and a fragment of one of the moneyboxes used to collect entrance money, were excavated at the site.

The site was reopened to the public in 1999 – it now features displays and some of the objects found by archaeologists – and part of it has been used as a performance space again since 2007.

WHERE: Rose Theatre, Park Street, Bankside; WHEN: 10am to 5pm Saturdays (Shakespeare’s Globe also offer tours during matinee performances at The Globe when tours there are not available – see www.shakespeares-globe.org for more details); COST: Free (donations welcomed and there is a charge for tours from The Globe); WEBSITE: www.rosetheatre.org.uk