Shakespearian actors in Shoreditch
Nowadays, the neighbourhood is full of actors like moths batting around a flame. Some live here, others drop by. I only have to walk out of my front door and I am tripping over Toby Stephens in Hanbury St, Damian Lewis in Redchurch St, Reese Witherspoon shopping in the Spitalfields Market, Gael Garcia Bernal and Eva Green lunching at St John Bread & Wine, Sienna Miller wolfing curry in Brick Lane, Ralph Fiennes reading Dostoevsky in Leila’s Cafe, Julie Christie in Bethnal Green Tesco, Maggie Gyllenhaal in Ryantown, Gywneth Paltrow dining at Les Trois Garcons or Jennifer Aniston stepping into Shoreditch House. The list is endless.
In this respect, not much has changed since the sixteenth century when, before the West End and before the South Bank, this was London’s theatre district and most of the actors were residents. The very first playhouse, “The Theatre” opened in New Inn Broadway in 1576 and then “The Curtain” nearby in Curtain Rd in 1577. I have no doubt there were plenty who felt the neighbourhood was going downhill when these new entertainment venues opened up within a year of each other.
If you read my post about Shakespeare in Spitalfields you will know that many of his plays were first performed here at the Curtain Theatre and you may recall that I came upon the tombstone of Shakespeare’s younger brother Edmond in Southwark Cathedral last year – he was an actor at the Curtain and his young son was buried in the churchyard of St Leonard’s, Shoreditch.
It surprised me, after all these years, to come upon the collecting box (that you can see above) with the phrase “The Actors’ Church” when I visited the atmospheric unrenovated St Leonard’s Church recently. In the sixteenth century, it was simply the parish church for local actors but it has been entirely rebuilt since then and nowadays St Paul’s, Covent Garden is known as “The Actors’ Church” – I have attended it when friends of mine in the theatre have had ceremonies there. However, since I discovered who exactly is buried at St Leonard’s, I understand why they might wish to brag about it.
If you enter the main door of St Leonard’s (built by George Dance the elder in 1740) and turn right inside the body of the church, you can go through a pair of double doors to ascend a wide staircase which leads to a space at the top of the stairwell where you will find the monument to all the Shakespearian actors who were once residents of our neighbourhood and are interred here. It is an impressive roll call, taller than a man and graven in marble by the Shakespeare League in 1913, who I suspect were also responsible for the phrase on the collecting box.
Top of the list is James Burbage, who trained as joiner then became an impresario, building “The Theatre”, believed to be the first purpose-built playhouse, and whose sons became distinguished actors. I like to imagine James Burbage was like Tyrone Walker-Hebborn who runs the Genesis Cinema in Whitechapel today. Tyrone was a roofer who took on the cinema because he fancied running one, was not challenged by the holes in the roof and has now become a film producer. Similarly, James was not troubled with explaining the requirements of a theatre to a carpenter because that was his own trade, also he had an instinct for show business and became a theatrical producer in his own building. In the future, we will need to keep an eye on Tyrone’s children – if he has any – because the most exciting name on the list of Shakespearean actors is James’ son Richard Burbage who was the first to play Hamlet.
When I met Ben Whishaw – the most exciting Hamlet of our own generation – buying his Christmas tree at the Columbia Rd Market recently, I wish I had suggested he walk over to the churchyard of St Leonard’s, and maybe take a holly wreath, to admire the wintry flowers growing there nourished by the remains of our very first Hamlet, Richard Burbage, who was buried there in 1619. Certainly, I shall never be able to walk down Shoreditch High St and take the shortcut through the churchyard again without thinking that this is where Hamlet lies.
If, like “Orlando”, I could have lived through all these centuries, I might have written four hundred years ago that the neighbourhood was full of theatrical types, like moths batting around a flame – I could not walk out of my front door without tripping over William Shakespeare stepping out of the ale house with Ben Jonson, Edmond Shakespeare mourning his son at St Leonard’s church, Richard Burbage supping with his father James and brother Cuthbert at The Boars Head, Richard Tarlton shopping at the market, Gabriel Spencer in Bishoppes gate St, William Somers in the Spittal Fields, William Sly at the bawdy house and Christopher Marlowe getting arrested in Norton Folgate. The list is endless.