Shakespeare, Curtain Road, and four theatres

Pre-Raphaelite R&J
Ford Madox Brown’s vision of Romeo and Juliet

This day in London history: on 29 January 1595 (according to some sources), Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet was probably staged for the first time. In any case, it would have been acted out on the stage of a theatre called, unimaginatively, the Theatre, the first purpose-built London theatre. Shakespeare and his company the Lord Chamberlain’s Men were based there at the time.

The Theatre was located on what is now Curtain Road in Shoreditch and, though Curtain is a great name for a lane with a theatre, it was the land, belonging to the priory of Holywell, which was called the ‘Curtayne’. The origin of the name, apparently, is uncertain.

The Theatre
Map depicting the location of the Theatre

There was also a though a rival theatre, built nearby, that was called The Curtain. The location was considered a particularly good one for theatres: it was outside the jurisdiction of the City, where plays and suchlike were frowned upon, but close enough for the audience to travel there.

Back to the Theatre: it was established by James Burbage and his brother-in-law John Brayne around 1576. James’s son, and the company’s lead actor, Richard Burbage,  would have taken the role of Romeo in that first performance, and Juliet would have been played by a young boy actor. It would be another 65 years before female roles were played on the stage by women; the first such role was Desdemona in Shakespeare’s Othello.

The two theatres provided entertainment for Londoners for several years, staging plays by Shakespeare and Jonson, among others. At the end of the 21-year lease, held by Burbage,there was an argument with the owner, Giles Allen, about renewing it. The Theatre was dismantled virtually overnight and the materials used to make another theatre – the Globe.

Photograph: Christine Matthews

The Globe was destroyed by fire in 1613, rebuilt a year later and then closed in 1642. Since then a modern reproduction of the Globe, close to the original site, was opened in 1997 following the efforts of Sam Wanamaker, who founded the Shakespeare Globe Trust to rebuild the Globe. Wanamaker, sadly, did not live to see the project reach fulfilment; he is commemorated in a plaque nearby.

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