Curtain raiser

London’s latest City redevelopment has unearthed the Shakespearean Curtain Theatre, and its shape is exciting the archaeologists

Archaeologists, I find, tend to live in the period they are examining. When I go to the dig of the Curtain Theatre in Shoreditch, I find an area of mostly 20th century commercial buildings fast giving way to 21st century shiny office and apartment blocks and towers. This latest iteration of the ever-churning city is what has finally revealed the Curtain – one of the theatres used by Shakespeare and his actor-manager chum Richard Burbage with their company The Lord Chamberlain’s Men. It lies just north of the vast Broadgate development.  As described by the archaeologists, today’s surroundings melt away and this is a louche actor’s quarter where Christopher Marlowe gets into tavern brawls, the Burbages and playwrights Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker (co-authors of ‘The Roaring Girl’) live nearby, while Ben Jonson kills notoriously violent actor Gabriel Spencer in a duel in the nearby Hoxton fields. This was very much an outside-the-city-walls night-time economy –  as Shoreditch is once again. The Curtain in question was not a theatrical one but referred rather to the name of the original locale – Curtain Close – which in turn derives from the nearby curtain wall of the City.

First stab by MOLA at what the Curtain may have looked like. They certainly know it was this shape.
First stab by MOLA at what the Curtain may have looked like. They certainly know it was this shape.

Shakespeare, it seems, hung out with some fairly unsavoury characters – it was common for theatrical impresarios also to run brothels, for instance, and arrests for various kinds of malfeasance were common – but so far as we can tell he seems to have kept out of the fighting and pimping that brought some of his fellow thesps to the notice of the authorities. Nevertheless, surely the concept of the hellraising actor, which reached its peak in the 1960s, was born here. But as James Wright, senior archaeologist at Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA), puts it somewhat sorrowfully, clicking forward to the present day: ‘Social media has killed the hellraising.’   

Several things excite the archaeologists about the Curtain. The key thing being that – unlike most of the theatres of this period on Bankside, south of the river where the Globe was later built – it is rectangular rather than polygonal or circular. MOLA has over the years excavated a large number of theatres of the period and has, says MOLA’s Heather Knight who is leading the Curtain dig, identified a broad distinction. Those north of the river are mostly (though not all) rectangular, the ones south of the river mostly the wooden ‘O’ configuration. Why is this? 

  • The Curtain stayed in use as a theatre for nearly 50 years and then became tenements.
    The Curtain stayed in use as a theatre for nearly 50 years and then became tenements.
  • In the 1970s they just crunched right through the Curtain and did not even look for it.
    In the 1970s they just crunched right through the Curtain and did not even look for it. · Credit: Hugh Pearman
  • The dig continues around the concrete lumps.
    The dig continues around the concrete lumps. · Credit: Hugh Pearman
  • When it rains the old culverts start to run with water again.
    When it rains the old culverts start to run with water again. · Credit: Hugh Pearman
  • This is Standing Archaeology and that is rare. And it is rectangular not polygonal.
    This is Standing Archaeology and that is rare. And it is rectangular not polygonal. · Credit: Hugh Pearman
  • Some of the walls of the Curtain theatre survive.
    Some of the walls of the Curtain theatre survive. · Credit: MOLA
  • Some large lumps of foundation concrete have to be removed or worked round.
    Some large lumps of foundation concrete have to be removed or worked round.

They don’t know yet, although Knight hazards guesses – perhaps the northern ones were more for bigger spectacles, battle scenes and so on, and the southern ones for more intimate rom-coms and the like?  We know that Shakespeare’s Henry V premiered at the Curtain. Personally, I’d suggest that the circular ones arose more from a common dual function. Theatre then was as much about animal-based entertainment – bear-baiting, cockfighting and so forth – in which people huddled closer to the action. Betting was a part of this. Looked at from this point of view, perhaps the northerly examples had more to do with the inn-courtyard tradition of ‘straight’ theatre, whatever that was, while the others were multi-functional entertainment hubs. See, I can speculate with the best of them.

There’s a show-and-tell table in a hut near the site containing a lot of ceramic artefacts including what appears to be a bird-whistle. An actual special effect device, so proving the building’s theatrical history. In fact this was the longest-lived theatre of its day, operational for nearly 50 years from 1577 to 1625. Was it converted from an older building? Possibly. It was certainly converted into tenements once it ceased to be a theatre, so leading to various layers of archaeological history. 

  • MOLA archaeologist Sarah Trehy excavating the exceptionally well preserved remains of the Curtain.
    MOLA archaeologist Sarah Trehy excavating the exceptionally well preserved remains of the Curtain. · Credit: MOLA
  • Archaeological finds from the Curtain theatre site.
    Archaeological finds from the Curtain theatre site.
  • Archaeologist Paul McGarrity holds a 16th century bird whistle, a possible theatrical sound effect.
    Archaeologist Paul McGarrity holds a 16th century bird whistle, a possible theatrical sound effect. · Credit: MOLA

While the configuration of theatres of this time differed, certain things were standardised – for instance the width of the galleries surrounding the ‘pit’, whether circular or rectangular, always comes out at 3.8 metres or twelve and a half feet. Did this relate to a standard timber length at a time when timber-frame and hybrid timber/masonry buildings were universal, shall we say 15 feet to allow for the necessary joints and trimming? 

Unlike other excavated theatres where little more than the marks of the foundations are present, the Curtain is ‘standing archaeology’, given that whole sections of vertical wall have been uncovered, rising from a datum 3m below today’s ground level.  There is a bit of footway made of animal bones, and brick culverts which, once exposed, reassumed their original function and started to run with water on rainy days. They have made a conjectural view of what the Curtain may have looked like but admit they have almost nothing to go on when it comes to the form of the ‘stage house’ which they show as a simple pitched- roof canopy.

It’s remarkable that – though it has been known since the 19th century that the theatre was here or hereabouts, a big clue being that it is on Curtain Road – nobody went looking for it the last time this site was redeveloped in the 1970s for low-rise industrial buildings.  In consequence you can see where the diggers hacked through the original foundations. Especially annoying is where a concrete strip foundation runs right along what would have been the edge of one of the galleries. Elsewhere huge lumps of concrete and piles crash down through the remains. But plenty survives – you get a feel for the shape and extent of the place, which extended from the street entrance to what was originally a garden wall to the east.  

What’s going to be built here is a huge development designed by the London office of architect Perkins + Will (formerly Pringle Brandon). Called with a certain inevitability The Stage, it’s a high-rise residential tower and a stumpier office building, plus the usual ground-level retail. This is all arranged around a new square in which the remains of the Curtain will be preserved under cover and displayed, along with a visitor centre. The architect is having to do some redesigning though because its initial plans were based on the assumption of a circular theatre and now it knows that it wasn’t.

The visit taught me one obvious thing: this is a part of London that has been continuously redeveloped over time, and the process continues. It’s what great cities do. But now we have sophisticated and rapid archaeological techniques as well. The Curtain will vanish under gravel for protection while the development takes place around it, then re-emerge to be seen alongside its new neighbours. Which, you may be sure, it will outlast.