Shakespeare returns to Shoreditch as Curtain Theatre finds go on show

MOLA archaeologist Sarah Trehy at The Curtain. Pic: MOLA

The Curtain Theatre in Shoreditch was Britain’s second playhouse and home to William Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men before they moved onto the renowned Globe on South Bank. Shakespeare himself trod its boards and we know Romeo and Juliet was performed there.

Now, Londoners will have the chance to learn about Shoreditch’s Shakespearean theatrical history this Saturday as archaeologists bring The Curtain theatre back to life at Spitalfields Market with performances and a display of artefacts discovered at the theatre site.

Little was known about the architecture of The Curtain theatre other than the location, in Curtain Road, just north of Spitalfields Market. And it wasn’t until archaeological excavations by MOLA in 2016 that this once great theatre was revealed. 

Archaeologists recording the remains of The Curtain. Pic: MOLA

The excavations were conducted ahead of the development of the site by Cain International into shops, offices and homes and to preserve the remains of the theatre.

MOLA, or Museum of London Archeology, is a commercial archaeological company based in Islington who offer heritage advice and services including full excavation of sites, undertook the excavation on behalf of Cain International.

Heather Knight, a Senior Archaeologist at MOLA, who lead the excavation, said that it became clear that this was “a purpose-built theatre… this was a playhouse for the masses, where people gathered in the afternoon for action-packed performances.” 

Archaeologists uncovered walls, which show the layout of the theatre, interestingly it was rectangular rather than the expected circular, making all previous mock-ups of what the theatre may have looked like redundant. They also uncovered a long narrow stage perfect for staging fight scenes. 

A picture of the building was being created, but also an image of the theatre goers themselves; 359 tiny glass beads were discovered suggesting a more wealthy audience was certainly in attendance, whilst poorer sections of society were also welcomed with the ticket prices starting at just a penny. 

MOLA’s Time Truck, an archaeology pop-up on wheels, will be at Spitalfields Market, not far from the Curtain site, on Saturday to share the finds with children and residents who are interested to step back into Shoreditch’s past and handle artefact which, who knows, maybe even Shakespeare himself once held.  

Visitors explore artefacts at MOLA’s Time Truck. Pic: MOLA

Knight said“The archaeology of Shakespeare’s Curtain theatre is a part of Shoreditch’s elaborate history and this event is a great opportunity to combine live theatre, fantastic finds and festive cheer to bring the theatre’s history to life for local communities.” 

There will be pottery, clay smoking pipes – popular in Shakespeare’s day – and animal bones recovered from the excavations at the playhouse and visitors will be given the rare opportunity to handle these 16th century finds. 

As well as this, there will be performances by local school children reciting tales inspired by Shakespeare and professional actors reading excerpts from Twelfth Night. 

The Time Truck will be at Spitalfields Market and will be open from 11am Saturday 14 until 6pm. 

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