One needs to hunt very hard to spot the traces of the Shoreditch that William Shakespeare would have known. Still clinging on to its hipster reputation, the east London neighbourhood has been under threat in recent decades from the encroaching tower blocks of the City of London. Of the rich 16th-century history of this area, almost nothing remains.
But a metre or two below the floor of a new building, a hole in a concrete floor permits a glimpse of a building with which Shakespeare would have been very familiar. This is the Tudor brick foundation on which the Theatre was built in 1576, probably the first purpose-built playhouse in London since Roman times, and later, the place where the young actor and playwright began earning his reputation.
A new exhibition space dedicated to the history of the Theatre will open on the site in spring of next year, ahead of which the gallery is staging a two-day festival in Shoreditch later this month to highlight the area’s connections to the playwright.
Encompassing walking tours, academic lectures, musical and theatrical performances, a dance workshop and even a Tudor-themed yoga class (“the downward dog will have its day”), the aim of the event was to “shake up how you would go about programming a traditional Shakespeare festival” and remind attendees of a connection that is often overlooked, according to Carolyn Addelman, the exhibition project manager who has co-curated the festival.
“Shoreditch has this rich theatrical history but until recently, I don’t think people associated it with this formative Elizabethan and Shakespearean history,” she said. The lost foundations of the Theatre – which stood only until 1598 when it was dismantled and its timbers taken south of the river to build the Globe – were discovered in 2008.
Four years later archaeologists found the site of the Curtain – another theatre where Shakespeare’s company performed and where he is thought to have premiered a number of his most famous early plays – a few hundred metres away. That site is currently being developed into a 37-storey luxury apartment block.
As with the rest of his life and career, the physical evidence of Shakespeare’s Shoreditch is patchy. He is thought to have been a parishioner of the church of St Helen’s Bishopsgate, and he would certainly have been familiar with the former priory buildings of St Mary’s Spital, a few crumbled remnants of which can still be seen beneath the shiny developments at Spitalfields.
“Some people could be disappointed [not to find more],” admits blue badge guide Katie Wignall, who will lead walking tours of the area as part of the festival, “but on the other hand, in this part of London you expect these glass skyscrapers, but if you look carefully, nestled in among them are these tiny pieces of history. It almost adds to the excitement.”
For actors Dominic Gerrard and Joseph Chance, who will take part in an evening of music and dramatic readings focused on the life of the actor and theatre owner Richard Burbage, performing in a place that he and Shakespeare knew will inevitably add a layer of resonance, even with so much having changed in the interim.
“We are not doing original pronunciation, we are not washing our costumes in urine,” says Gerrard. “But we are trying to find some connection to the things that inform us now. We are looking for those things that haven’t really changed in the human spirit.”
The Shake It Up! festival takes place in venues around Shoreditch, east London, on 23 and 24 August 2019.