Nelson or Shakespeare?

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Norden’s Map of London, 1593


Horatio Nelson was incredibly well-connected.

Starting with his uncle, the deliciously named Maurice Suckling, who got him into the Navy in the first place; his mother was a great-niece of Robert Walpole, first Prime Minister of Great Britain. His skill as a seaman and arch-strategist gained him other connections: among them Admiral Samuel Hood, Commander of the New York Station, who included him in his entourage when visiting court in 1784. He might have stood as a parliamentary candidate alongside William Pitt, but he was unable to find a seat.

Of course, William Shakespeare was incredibly well-connected too, beginning with associations with Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Nashe, and ultimately attracting the attention of Her Majesty herself; and, long before Nelson, was posthumously wowing generations with his plays. We know so little about him. So much is guesswork, where Nelson’s every move is charted and evidenced.

I wonder if that is why £50 million pounds has been earmarked to save Nelson’s flagship during the Battle of Trafalgar, whilst the first theatre in which it is thought a Shakespeare play was performed languishes, sinking ever deeper into the mud of the Thames, for the want of just five million pounds?

I confess to being perplexed.

HMS Victory is ‘slowly rotting from the inside’. There is a hefty price tag to repair it: read the full story here.

The Rose Theatre, on Bankside, is just a stone’s throw from Sam Wanamaker’s breathtaking reconstruction of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. It is a footprint of a theatre, no more: the
foundations of a playhouse built in 1587 by Philip Henslowe, when bear-baiting was in vogue around the red-light district of Southwark.

It was the first playhouse built on the Southwark side of the river, and the first purpose-built theatre to stage a Shakespeare play. It is priceless, and iconic, and an indispensable part of our heritage, not just here in England, but all over the world.

Yet, it is sinking into the mud of the Thames.

It was threatened with complete destruction back in 1989, when an office block was due to be built on top of it. The great actors of the time – Lawrence Olivier, and Peggy Ashcroft, and myriad others – turned up to defend it and finally, it was decided that the building should be built, but on its own support, so the Rose could crouch like Caliban underneath.

The foundations were deteriorating rapidly, so the whole site was covered in water to slow down that process and protect this nonpareil. And there it has wallowed, like some sleeping leviathan, waiting for rescue.

It is lovingly tended and carefully monitored by English Heritage; measurements are taken, analyses made of the gases rising from the footprint. The Rose Playhouse has been successful in gaining a Heritage Lottery Fund grant to prepare detailed plans for archaeology, conservation, architecture and design for the Rose to rise again: £248,000 for laying plans towards the future.

It entails preserving and sealing the foundations, a little as the Mary Rose has been, only in an under-floor gallery, covered in glass. This would mean you could actually walk the foundations; see where the stage was. Where the character of Hamlet might have first walked on a stage. Think of it.

It would turn the dim, dank space where the footprint lives into a bright, spacious visitor centre. Once could stroll from the Globe to look through the glass walls of the Rose’s boundary, to the foundations of Henslowe’s old playhouse.

The plans are bold, and fair, and would mean the Rose would be preserved and open for all nations to stroll and see. Soon, all being well, a second Heritage Lottery fund application will be put in for £780,000, towards the second part of the project – where things start to happen.

This second application to HLF, to be successful, will need to be accompanied with promises of up to the additional sum of £3 million pounds from other sources, public and private.

But time is limited.

The theatre is sinking: within five years it will be irretrievable.

Which is why I salute the move to preserve the Victory, but yearn with all my heart for just a tenth of that sum for the little playhouse everyone seems – to me –  to have forgotten.

We bloggers, we are legion.

If you care about the theatre where Shakespeare’s plays were first performed; where Marlowe was a familiar face; inform yourself. Visit their website here. Know that very few people even know, as they walk along the South Bank, of its existence. And tell people. Spread the word, blog, tweet, put it on Facebook or Google +. If you have powerful friends, and the ability to move mountains, consider the Rose Playhouse. Tell them, and send them to the Rose.

This is not an aspect of world heritage that can be left to chance.

Five years is not an awfully long time.

A visit to the Rose:

A virtual tour:

Watch the original protest speeches on the site of the Rose here:


10 thoughts on “Nelson or Shakespeare?

  1. I found the Donations page. I didn’t see a way to donate dollars, but I guess somebody in the fiscal line will handle the math when things get that far. I’ll probably never see the Rose, but I’ll feel good knowing it’s there.

    It’s inconceivable that any English-speaking country would risk losing a building so closely associated with its greatest literary treasure. That includes the U.S. (even though our English more often trips off the tongue). I hope this country will step up and help.

  2. I agree with others, Kate. If we spread the word, there needs to be a way to add US currency. I am really so surprised to learn the Rose is so clearly in peril. Thank you for making this plea and creating awareness. I understand the importance–and how quickly five years will pass!

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