20 May 1989| What the Glorious Rose has Given You

First published in the Daily Mail

(with a Postscript 27 May 2004)

Ian McKellen, one of our greatest actors, tells with passionate conviction why the theatre he is leading the fight to save is more than just a shrine.

Day after day, and by night, we actors visit the Rose. To us, it is already a shrine.

This is where modern drama was born. Words that we all know and love were first said here; phrases that have entered the language, shaped English consciousness, changed the thoughts even of people who have never set foot in a theatre in their lives.

That is why we want to preserve the Rose. By we, I mean theatre people, and audiences, archaeologists and historians, as well as the politicians and residents of Southwark, where the skeleton of the Elizabethan theatre was unearthed in February. That is why we have caused so much fuss.

That is what is so special about these fragile bricks and mortar that have been clogged in Thames-side mud for 400 years.

It is easy to see why the academics are so excited. The Rose is unique — the sole survivor of the handful of open-roofed playhouses which were custom-built around 1587 to stage the first performances of plays by Shakespeare and his contemporaries.

Londoners should be excited too. London alone invented these theatres: there were never any others anything like them, anywhere else in the world.

But in 1642, Cromwell closed down theatres like the Rose. It was the act of a dictator, wishing to censor and silence free speech.

Since then, no one has fully known what they looked like, nor ever expected to. That is why theatre historians have rushed across the world to measure and marvel.

For any student of the Elizabethan age, the Rose is a surprising, quite unexpected, spectacular discovery.

But you don't have to be a student, a Londoner or an academic — everyone with eyes and an imagination can appreciate the Rose.

The site has always been known; but no one ever dared hope to find the theatre so excellently preserved.

Since the excavations began, looking down from Southwark Bridge you can see how history has been brought to life.

Below is the yard where Shakespeare's groundlings stood at 1d a time for the world premiere of Titus Andronicus. It is a tiny space.

It would be interesting to experiment to see just how many people it could hold. My guess is that 300 people could have crammed into it — just, standing shoulder to shoulder. The floor slopes — it took the Rose discovery for scholars to realise that 300 people need a raked auditorium to see over each others' heads.

Underfoot the surface is packed with animal bones and hazelnuts — not the remains of interval snacks, but the binding which holds the mortar of the flooring together.

At its edges you can see the indentations left by rain dripping off the thatch which sheltered those who could afford 3d for a gallery seat — the management evidently saw no need for gutters, and the groundlings would have got their feet wet.

Rain would not have stopped play — the actors were kept dry under their own roof. You can still see the brick base of the pillars that supported it.

The boards of the stage where Shakespeare acted as a youth and where he had his earliest successes have long since disintegrated.

But its wooden foundations, where the Devil crouched before springing through a trap door, are still there — It was on stage at the Rose that Marlowe's Dr Faustus first sold his soul.

The archaeologists have been surprised to find how confined the back-stage area is. But the skimpy Elizabethan tiring-rooms — tiring from 'attiring' — will seem spacious to any modern actor in the fringe theatre where the entire cast often changes in the gents' loo.

The Rose didn't last long as a theatre. When the newer, bigger Globe opened further down the street, the tiny Rose went bankrupt.

The first Globe was destroyed when its thatch caught fire — from a cannon shot during a performance of Shakespeare's Henry VIII.

The reproduction Globe, now being built by the American actor Sam Wanamaker and others, will have to be changed to incorporate discoveries like that sloping floor at the Rose.

But that Globe will be a reconstruction, a copy, starting from scratch on a new, non-original site. The Rose is more than that. The Rose is the real thing.

The revelation of the Rose is its intimacy. In the afternoon sunshine, within the walls of .lath and plaster, Shakespeare's audience could clearly catch every smile and frown, every blink of the eye.

Never again will we dismiss those early actors as bombastic hams. In the tiny Rose there was no need to strut and fret. The poetry and the rhetoric could be spoken with a conversational tone: they could even have whispered, and not a syllable be lost.

In our own times when so many popular shows depend on lavish spectacle and technology, the Rose reminds us of the essence of live theatre, of its human scale. Very little scenery; obviously no microphones. Nothing between the actor and his audience except the London air.

Graphic reconstruction of the Rose Theatre

Even those who have never seen a play by Shakespeare, or set foot inside a theatre, should be concerned for the survival of the Rose. For it is more than an actors' shrine: it is a symbol for everyone.

It is a symbol of our need to communicate. It was built before we depended on the telephone and the television. Before the Telex and the fax and the computer; even before most people could read or write.

The Spirit of the Rose celebrates person talking to person, directly, one with another; and looking each other straight in the eye.

I live by the River Thames. It is lined with famous monuments which in our materialistic age have no practical use.

What is the point of the Cutty Sark moored in concrete? Who does the Tower of London guard these days? The Monument to the Fire of London does nothing more than get in the way of City traffic.

Would you destroy any of them to build an office block? No. They are symbols not just of the past, but of human spirit.

That is why we must save the Rose.

27 May 2004

The public outcry was so loud that the Thatcher government intervened with a stay on the site's destruction so the Rose could be fully examined. This followed a demonstration attended by thousands of well-wishers which climaxed with Laurence Olivier's last performance, in absentia, speaking Henry V's battle speech on tape. He ended it "Cry God for Harry, England and The Rose!" There were nightly vigils at the site, which on the announced day of destruction was protected by a ring of actors (Peggy Ashcroft and Judi Dench in the lead) and others who held up the bulldozers whilst the local member of parliament (Simon Hughes) liaised with Parliament.

The Rose was eventually covered with a protective layer of thin concrete and remains under the office building that was erected above it. I narrated the display which William Dudley organised and which can still be visited nearby the ersatz Globe Theatre at Bankside, east of the National Theatre on the river Thames. No one knows whether the remains will survive the concrete. — Ian McKellen, 27 May 2004

From the Evening Standard

Visit the official site for the Rose Theatre Trust

THE ROSE THEATRE - AN ARCHAEOLOGICAL DISCOVERY by Julian Bowsher. Foreword by Sir Ian McKellen. A straightforward but excellent account of the discoveries made during the excavation, written by the Site Director. Clearly written, beautifully illustrated and jargon-free.

Ian McKellen at the excavation of the Rose Theatre, London, 1989

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