Above: the 40-floor tower proposed for a plot in south Hackney
A PLANNING application to erect a 40-floor building on the site of the ruins of the inner London theatre that premiered Romeo and Juliet and Henry V has divided residents. Remains of the Curtain Theatre, erected in 1577 in Shoreditch, just north of the City, were unearthed by Museum of London archaeologists, and announced last summer, to great excitement.
Not long afterwards, the family that owns the site said it intended to apply to Hackney council for permission to build a tower block.
The land is of huge significance for world theatre. Shakespeare probably acted at the “Curtayne” and a reference in the prologue of Henry V to a “wooden O” — “Can this Cock-Pit hold within this Woodden O, the very Caskes that did affright the Ayre at Agincourt?” — is believed to be to the Curtain, as it is now spelt.
The tower block will comprise mostly flats, some offices and at lower levels shops, restaurants and bars. A two-storey building will enclose the ruins and include a 250-seat open-air auditorium and an exhibition on Elizabethan theatre.
Benjamin Davies, founder of Independent Shoreditch, the Business Alliance, said: “The design, by Pringle Brandon Perkins and Will, opens up the site and brings to life and showcases Shakespeare’s Curtain Theatre. This will be fantastic for the area.”
A local writer whose blogs about the area became a book, Spitalfields Life, and who insists on using only the pen name the Gentle Author, said: “Shakespeare’s first theatre is a site of global cultural significance and should be respected as such by being set into a park or some other sympathetic environment. For developers to stick these monstrous tower blocks on the top is a derisory act of cheap opportunism and ignorance.”
Marc Zakian, a writer who lectures at the National Portrait Gallery on Shakespeare, said: “Hackney council seems at best indifferent, and at worst ignorant, to the news that when the greatest writer in the English language first pitched up in London his stomping ground was Shoreditch. The remains of the first theatre in the country is on our doorstep, and not a street name is to be found.
“While millions of tourists visit Statford-upon-Avon or queue for tickets at the Globe, Hackney’s tribute to to the Bard is a gyratory traffic scheme and a generic block of flats.”
Mr Zakian called on Hackney Mayor Jules Pipe to use his imagination. “This is your chance to bring tourist money and jobs to the area,” he said. “If we have to have the flats, make sure some of the money spent on the latest glass erection is used to create a dynamic new centre which celebrates the bard in the borough.
“Spend some of the the cash restoring the crypt at St Leonard’s church, where Shakespeare’s parish church is hiding. Tell the story of an 18-year-old boy from Stratford roaming the ’ditch, dreaming of Romeo and Juliet. Build it and the visitors will come. Where there’s a Will, there’s a way.”
Rachel Munro-Peebles, who co-chairs South Shoreditch Community Association (SSCA), said: “There are split views on this development. The SSCA is currently swamped with both this major development and another, the Shoreditch Village, which makes it very hard for the more-creative/historic business and residents of this area to collate and respond in an organised manner.
“Most are pleased that the historic site is being protected, and more residential flats are being built, as well as commercial. However, there are a lot of views that the building is out of sync with the rest of Shoreditch.”
Julian Bowsher, senior archaeologist for Museum of London Archaeology, said that he and his team had uncovered only a small area of the Curtain playhouse. “Like all archaeological excavations of this sort,” he said, “it has been covered up again so as to protect any remains until their future is decided.”
The area resonates with the drama of Elizabethan theatre. Shakespeare may have lived not far from St Leonard’s church, which became the burial place of the Burbage family. A few hundred metres north of the Curtain site, the actor-manager James Burbage built the pragmatically named “the Theatre”. A dispute with the landowner led him to dismantle it at night and ship the timbers across the Thames for what became his most famous theatre, the Globe.
Coincidentally, the development company that wants to build at the site is owned by a family called Bard.
David Altheer 240113
* A shorter version of this article is published in the Evening Standard today 24 Jan 2013.
* Emboldened words in Loving Dalston stories usually indicate a hyperlink for readers seeking further detail, a reader service rare among websites. If a link does not work, it is probably because the site to which the URL refers has not been maintained.