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Shakespearian actors in Shoreditch

January 8, 2010
by the gentle author

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.

10 Responses leave one →
  1. mcneill permalink
    January 8, 2010

    I see Henry VIII’s court jester William Sommers is buried here. Imagine being Henry VIII’s jester! I imagine he would have a massive laugh – but sometimes you’d just get a flagon of ale in the face. There’s a lovely Wikipedia on Sommers, from which I’ve yanked the following:

    …….. he did occasionally overstep the mark. In 1535, the King threatened to kill Sommers with his own hand, after Sir Nicholas Carew dared him to call Queen Anne “a ribald” and the Princess Elizabeth “a bastard”

    What’s best about this is that someone dared him! Haha! And what an insight into the humour of the time.

  2. Ian Harris permalink
    January 8, 2010

    It just gets better and better!

  3. Susan Lendroth permalink
    January 8, 2010

    I know very little beyond the names of any of those stars/scions of 16th century theatre, but now I am very interested in learning more. And how wonderful that the area is once again host to such an interesting mix.


  4. Anne permalink
    January 8, 2010

    It just goes to show that ‘what goes around ,comes around ‘ if we wait long enough.
    Lots of lovely info, I like it.

  5. January 8, 2010

    I am so happy that I have eventually found a blog that I can truely admire. Spitalfields is one of my favourite areas of London. Most people seem to over look the history. Good work. Please keep it up.

  6. March 13, 2010

    Another great article, I do indeed have children, two in fact. Scarlett Lily 6 & Mason Robert 3 who can be a drama queen & king whenever the mood takes them so who knows where they may end up. Thanks for keeping up the good work & I hope to see you soon. Our film EDGE is all shot & in edit now, we hope to be out of post production by September but will keep you posted.

    Take care


  7. Barry Clarke permalink
    May 1, 2010

    I am just discovering the history of St Leonard’s Church and the surrounding area and I am so chuffed that I will be performing there later this month in Tower Theatre’s production of ‘Julius Caesar’ – how exciting!!!!!!!!!

  8. Wills permalink
    April 10, 2012

    I’m loving all the stuff on this website. Just one point, Edmond Shakespeare’s “base-born” son was buried at St Giles Cripplegate (so near William’s Silver Street address), not St Leonard’s. Thanks for all the great pictures!

  9. Richard permalink
    November 30, 2014

    Beautifully cut letters.

  10. January 26, 2017

    Thank you. Very enjoyable. I would like to offer an important correction. Edmund Shakespeare’s son Edward was christened at St Leonards in July 1607 but buried a month later at St Giles without Cripplegate, near to Shakespeate’s lodging house on Silver Street. There may have been a brief celebratory period in Shoreditch, but it’s unlikely as the boy was born out of wedlock to a father who probably could not provide for him and was possibly already very ill. It may even have been a muted relief when the boy died a month later. The Giles without Cripplegate records say: “Edward son of Edward (sic) Shackspeere Player base borne”. One wonders why the burial didn’t also take place at St Leonards. It’s possible that Shakespeare was hosting his brother at this time, maybe even the nephew, at Silver Street. It’s probable that he paid for the funeral of the baby at St Giles. The tragedy completed its final act on December 31 1607, when Edmund was buried at St Saviours in Southwark.

    I enclose a link to an upcoming walk in your neighbourhood.

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