April 23* marks the 400th anniversary of the birth of the English language’s greatest playwright, born the humble son of a glover in Stratford upon Avon. Yet though William Shakespeare was a son of Staffordshire, his apprenticeship as an actor – and his transformation into the most famous name in theatre – took place in the East End of London.
Shakespeare, indeed, became a Londoner at a fortuitous time. For when he fetched up in Bishopsgate in the 1580s, theatre himself was being invented. The old tradition of travelling players, moving from town to town to perform plays, music and masques in the way of a travelling fair, was dying. Now, for the first time, entrepreneurial actor-managers would put down foundations, building dedicated theatres. In the growing and ever-richer London, they had the confidence that rather than chasing their audience, the audience would come to them.
The very first purpose-built playhouse (at least since Roman London) had been built in Whitechapel in 1567, in the grounds of the Red Lion tavern. With trapdoors and a fly tower for aerial stunts, it cost a princely £20, but was not a success. The fields around Whitechapel were too distant from the City for people to travel in numbers simply to see a play, especially in the depths of winter. In any case, the owner, Whitechapel grocer John Brayne would soon fall into dispute with his builders over money.
A few years later Brayne, and his brother-in-law, the actor-manager James Burbage would build The Theatre in Shoreditch. And there was a crucial difference. While. The Red Lion was merely a receiving house for touring companies, The Theatre accepted long-term engagements – in effect having its own repertory company. It was the first modern theatre proper, and a new tradition had been born.
That would be exciting enough, but to this new invention came a young actor, fresh from the West Country. Shakespeare had ideas of his own, shrugging off snobbish critics such as Robert Greene, who said only the Oxford-educated upper classes should write plays, and it was at The Theatre that ‘Romeo and Juliet’, ‘Hamlet’ and many more were first performed.
The Theatre was shortlived. After a disagreement with freeholder Giles Allen in 1598, the theatre company waited until their landlord was away for Christmas, and sneakily dismantled the whole affair, re-erecting it as The Globe on the South Bank. The site was never lost however and in recent years, excavations at Shoreditch’s New Inn Yard have uncovered the stonework of the original theatre. And by now, Shoreditch had the world’s second theatre, The Curtain having opened nearby in 1577.
William Shakespeare would die in 1616, retired back home in Stratford, a wealthy man. Today, academics argue about who this man really was. A great playwright, or simply an actor-manager speaking the words of a shadowy author behind the scenes… the Earl of Oxford perhaps? Francis Bacon? Christopher Marlowe?
Such doubts are irrelevant really, for Shakespeare’s work of course, never dies, falling out of fashion at periods in the intervening four centuries but always coming back.
So visitors to the newly established Goodman’s Fields Theatre in Aldgate in the 1740s would have seen a young David Garrick in a succession of bit parts, quickly progressing to understudying the lead role in Richard III. Why Shakespeare? Well it was a pivotal time in London theatre. Most playhouses had been shut down, under the draconian licensing acts of Prime Minister Robert Walpole (largely aimed at quashing satire and criticism of the Government). Those few that remained open were severely limited in the
plays they might stage (the beginning of the Lord Chancellor’s censorship of the theatre which would last until the 1960s). With new plays banned, impresarios had to dig back into the repertoire, blowing the dust of those Shakespeare plays, from a century and a half before.
And they were like new, with Garrick throwing aside the stiff and declamatory style the London audiences were used to, and delivering a naturalistic performance of light shade, using mannerisms, gestures and body movements (though he would probably still look stagey to our modern eyes). It was the beginning of a new tradition, where people could reinvent the Bard as they chose.
It seems everyone in the theatre has. And the plays have a lasting East End connection.
So when film director Barney Platt-Mills arrived in the East End in 1968 with his 35mm camera, to shoot the work of Joan Littlewood’s ‘Play Barn’, he consciously evoked the spirit of the Bard. Littlewood, that great champion of improvisation, had grown frustrated with local youths vandalising her theatre. So, brilliantly, she dragged them inside to improvise performances
onstage. Barney improvised his own title from Shakespeare, to call his film ‘Everyone’s an actor Shakespeare’ said, and a year later would work the piece up into the seminal East End youth movie ‘Bronco Bullfrog’.
And who even needs a theatre? One of the most popular street performers of the Victorian East End was ‘the Street Reciter’, who could drum up 10 shillings a week parading up and down the Commercial Road reciting entire Shakespeare plays… backwards. And translations of Shakespeare into every language under the sun are nothing new. Actor-manager Abraham Goldfaden stepped off a ship from Riga in 1883, and his company was soon performing in halls and clubs all over the East End. Their first permanent home was the Hebrew Dramatic Club in Princes Street (later Princelet Street), which opened in 1886, with Yiddish translations of Shakespeare hugely popular.
A few decades later, Stepney’s Steven Berkoff (a descendant of those incoming East End Jews) was an actor-manager himself. Many know him as a screen heavy (playing George Cornell in the 1990 film ‘The Krays’) but his real love is Shakespeare, producing Richard II and Coriolanus for the New York Shakespeare Festival, and mounting ‘Shakespeare’s Villains’ at the Haymarket’s Theatre Royal.
And when the sadly departed Half Moon theatre was launched in a disused synagogue in Alie Street, Aldgate, in 1972, its founders reached right back to the days of The Globe and The Theatre, with performers and audience meeting in the pit. That the synagogue held just 80 people only added to the power and intimacy. It says much about the enduring power of Shakespeare’s work that in doing so they anticipated modern theatre. In that stripped-down space you would go to the Half Moon to see Edward Bond, Dario Fo and Eleanor Marx, as well as
Shakespeare. You might also see Frances de la Tour, an actress, best-known to young audiences as Olympe Maxime, headmistress of Beauxbatons Academy, in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, but better known to their parents as Miss Jones in Rising Damp, playing the title role of Hamlet, in 1980.
Women playing men? Men playing women? Black actors playing white parts? Shocking a few short years ago… but standard stuff now.
And when the World came to the East End four years ago to watch the Olympics, opening ceremony director (and Mile End resident) Danny Boyle decided that a bell would strike a suitably patriotic note for the opening of the Games. A two-metre-tall, three-metre-
wide bell was duly commissioned from the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, though the 23-tonne monster – the world’s largest tuned bell – had to be cast in Asten, in the Netherlands, as it was too big for the Whitechapel works. On its side reads an inscription from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. “Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,”
So, make of his work what you may. It’s all part of the enduring connection and constant reinvention of Shakespeare’s work… and it all started here. Happy birthday Will.
*Almost as significant for English readers, April 23 is also St George’s Day, George being England’s patron saint.