The Curtain Theatre was used as a playhouse from 1577 in an area of land called Curtain Close in Shoreditch, and is significant thanks in part to its associations with William Shakespeare. The Curtain sat just 200 yards south or south east of the capital’s first playhouse, the Theatre which opened in 1576. It’s not certain who built the Curtain Theatre but it could have been Henry Lanman, a theatrical entrepreneur, who was the theatre’s manager from 1582 until 1592. The very first performance of Shakespeare’s Henry V was at the Curtain in 1599 while the Lord Chamberlain’s Men company of actors, of which the playwright was a member, made the theatre their home for a year until 1599 when they moved to the Globe.
In 1580 the Curtain survived an earthquake. An eyewitness described how the audience ‘leapt down from the top of the turrets, pinnacles, and towers where they stood, to the ground, whereof some had their legs broke, some their arms, some their backs, some hurt one where, some another, and many score crushed and bruised’. From 1592-1594 the playhouse was forced to close while London was ravaged by the Great Plague.
Despite fire and disease, plays were staged at the Curtain well into the seventeenth century. Having the longest history of use of all London’s Elizabethan playhouses, the last stage production at the Curtain was probably around 1625 and it was converted into tenements in the 1630s when it had fallen out of use as a theatre.
The theatre’s exact location was lost until 2012 when MOLA archaeologists started the initial excavation. Remarkably, the remains are only a few yards away from a plaque marking the former best guess at the theatre’s location. Much of the surrounding area is built up, so MOLA dug trenches in the only available open space. They turned out to be in exactly the right place.
The archaeologists discovered a brick wall from the late sixteenth century, and a gravel surface strewn with pottery. The remains displayed architectural characteristics typical of Elizabethan playhouses: a polygonal structure comprising a thick inner wall and a thinner outer wall, with a space of around 3.8 metres in between.
The detailed excavation is set to begin this summer, tying in with the 400-year anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. This excavation will allow archaeologists to uncover all the surviving remains and study the playhouse in detail.
Today, Galliard Homes, with joint venture partners Cain Hoy, McCourt, Vanke and The Estate Office Shoreditch, are developing The Stage where Shakespeare’s Curtain Theatre once stood. Incorporating the remains of The Curtain Theatre, Shakespeare’s Elizabethan playhouse, it covers a 2.5 acre site and will include 32,668 sq ft of retail, 205,634 sq ft of office space, a 37-storey residential tower, an acre of vibrant public space, an international visitor centre and cultural and performance space.
The Curtain is just one of many buildings that are significant to the Bard; in celebration of this discovery and in honour of the anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, The Stage have put together a unique photographic resource detailing other structures closely associated with Shakespeare, called Shakespeare’s Buildings.