Doors can be such unpromising beginnings.
It was at the gates of The Globe Theatre on a sunny Saturday afternoon that my daughter asked if we could go and find The Rose.
And I’ll swear that the world around at that moment went quiet, like the centre of a storm, and we were adrift at the fulcrum of a river of time.
The Rose. The Globe was built on the Southwark side of the river in 1599, its second incarnation. But the Rose, Christopher Marlowe’s playhouse, predates that. It was built just a stone’s throw from the river in 1587, the first theatre on the Southwark side. It was started by Philip Henslowe and a butcher named Cholmeley, the first ever theatre to stage a Shakespeare play.It is an icon.
We went off, following the automated voice of a nameless android phone, until we stood at the foot of a faceless building covered in grey marble: something Gordon Gekko would have been proud of.
Yet, with the same odd feeling as Alice in her Wonderland, we noticed a strange set of double doors in its base. Utterly incongruous they were, old and oaken, and scattered about with handbills and posters. And an odd little waist high sandwich board pointed to them. This way, it said, for the archaeology of the Rose Theatre.
They looked locked. We stood and debated, and finally the rebel in me pushed gently: and Open Sesame: the doors gave way.
We found ourselves in a box office from the 1970s: dark, cluttered, unpromising. The smell was overpowering: of must, and damp, and the Thames in general. We had a mad urge to turn tail and bolt. This did not seem quite right.
And then, there was a man hovering beyond the box office. He watched us thoughtfully, as we dithered about. And then he beckoned.
This is it, I thought. It’s dark in there. Will we ever get out again?
But we went, anyway.
And found we were on a wooden platform, in dim semi-darkness, overlooking a patch of Thames water. And in the water, picked out in red lights, was the plan of Marlowe’s place. It was time to be almost uncontainably excited, for the man told me quietly that beneath that water, marked out by those lights, was theatrical history which has been waiting for be uncovered for almost 500 years.
This is by no means the beginning of the story of the recovery of the Rose Theatre. That began in 1989, when developers wanted to concrete the whole site over and an enormous campaign was launched to save it. In the end, a very English compromise was reached; the developers built their block suspended over the theatre’s remains leaving them lurking below.
And so it stayed. You can visit the remains, preserved by the water, to this day, by pushing the strange door at the foot of the eighties monolith. But people have been very busy fundraising, and productions have been put on there by the side of the Rose’s remains, so that the theatre is set to rise from the ashes.
A Heritage Lottery Fund grant is about to make it possible for preparations to be made for a full excavation. As yet, only about three-quarters of the site is uncovered. We will find out incredible discoveries about this theatre, how Henslowe got his punters in and out of the building, about its two-storey nature. And then the remains will be vacuum packed to save them disintegrating, just like the Mary Rose; and since they are sunken by today’s standards – Bankside was much lower then – tourists will be able to visit them and marvel through glass at a true Elizabethan Theatre It will have glass sides and celebrate the legacy which grew up in those heady years alongside the bear-baiting arenas, with the Winchester Geese plying their trade.
It is just the beginning.
A new beginning for The Rose.
The Rose Theatre is looking for volunteers, donations and every kind of help: to find out more, visit their website at http://www.rosetheatre.org.uk