Does it matter? That was the question I asked myself as I stood on that gravel, a few feet above a surface that Shakespeare must have walked on, trying to be objective yet also repressing a shiver down the backbone.
The rediscovery of the site of the Curtain theatre in Shoreditch, east London, has sent a ripple of excitement through Shakespearean circles, yet the nondescript yard off Curtain Road is a dull and shabby space, with a scar of gravel marking the trench where the 20th-century concrete was recently broken up.
Does it matter? That was the question I asked myself as I stood on that gravel, a few feet above a surface that Shakespeare must have walked on, trying to be objective yet also repressing a shiver down the backbone. I couldn’t maintain any degree of objectivity: this is a space that generates that visceral feeling that history is a permeable membrane, 400 years a gap to be bridged just by stretching out a hand. Michael Boyd, artistic director of the RSC, caught it when he learned of the discovery, saying he longed just to touch the mud and stone of the theatre.
The same team from the Museum of London Archaeology found the Theatre just up the road in 2008, and, across the river, remains of other Elizabethan theatres – the Rose, and the Globe itself. Do we need archeological evidence of yet another Shakespeare theatre? Yes, I think. There’s almost certainly more of the Curtain to be found as development of the site continues. We should learn the size of the yard – and therefore how many groundlings could be packed in for a penny a head – and possibly, from the size of the foundations, how tall the galleries rose. (The only image believed to show the Curtain in 1600 shows an implausibly grand structure on the scale of the Tower of London.) We’ll know what the spectators ate, from dropped oyster shells and hazel nuts; what they wore, from dress hooks and little metal tips of laces; what they drank, from broken ale mugs and wine cups (the beer shop may well have been at the entrance, almost certainly where a small Victorian pub now stands); and even where they peed when they’d drunk too much.
All this matters more than another stop on Shoreditch tourist walks. The shape of Shakespeare’s theatres shaped his plays. He could take different risks when his posh, educated audience, paying six pence a head or more, had a nice dry roof over their heads at the indoor Blackfriars theatre, where he could divert them with lighting, magical tricks, and stage effects like trapdoors. In this early “wooden O”, however, he had to hold the interest of the penny groundlings or risk a riot: if he couldn’t convince them that the Curtain could indeed, as his prologue in Henry V asks, hold “the air at Agincourt”, the show was sunk.
He held their interest above all with language and a cracking yarn, but if the number of sides of the theatre and the shape of the stage screwed the acoustics, and the groundlings got bored and started to chatter, nobody would have heard a word. So he threw in sword fights, songs, dances, vulgar jokes, poison, murder, ghosts, to yank their attention back again. If the groundlings got restless, Shakespeare wouldn’t have hesitated to throw Nigel Pargeter off the roof.
Was the Curtain an awkward theatre to work in? Many believe Romeo and Juliet was first performed there – is that why every scene of Twilight-ish poetical teenage lust is undercut so insistently with a brawl or a duel? As four centuries are peeled back from the site, we may yet learn the answers. I can’t wait.
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