Text © Hugh Pearman. Photos by Chris Pearsall. Plan courtesy of BTH Architects. A fuller version of the article first published in The Sunday Times, London, on December 30, 2007, as "The Rose in full bloom".
As improbable outcomes go, beat this: an unpromising commercial development in Kingston, south-west London just happens, miraculously, to contain a near-perfect theatre auditorium, based on the plan of the Rose from Elizabethan times. It opens for business in mid January with theatrical eminence grise Sir Peter Hall's new touring production of Uncle Vanya. But can it become more - become, in fact, Britain's first true university-linked performing arts academy? That is the aim. Sir Peter, former director of both the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre, is chancellor of Kingston University, and the grand idea is to train up theatre professionals - from actors to designers and stage managers - which can feed two small resident companies in the two auditoria at the new Rose. As he admits, that plan is still at the fundraising stage, and right now, with the Arts Council in full slash-and-burn mode, is not an easy time to get an ambitious new producing house under way. But still… "It's to do with the English ability to make things happen by improvisation, and informality," Sir Peter reflects as he comes to the phone after a long day of rehearsals for Vanya. "Who would have thought that a copy of Shakespeare's Rose in modern guise would be built at Kingston, just because a group of Kingstonians wanted it? It's absolutely crazy. If someone had told you that, you'd say - don't be silly. That'll never happen."" Indeed, the Rose - costing some £11m so far - has had a difficult birthing. Ever since the site of the original 1587 theatre on London's Bankside was discovered in 1989, it has raised awkward questions (What? No thrust stage for those hammy asides?) and suggested possibilities. There have been various plans to recreate it. This was where Shakespeare and Marlowe wrote and performed for impresario Philip Henslowe, as vividly portrayed in the film Shakespeare in Love, scripted by Tom Stoppard. But while the replica open-air theatre of Shakespeare's later Globe was built with great success (and a similar Rose replica is proposed near Boston, Massachusetts), the Rose in Kingston is a different proposition. For a start, it has a roof. Secondly, it is not historicist - this is clearly a new building. And thirdly, it is not trying to be academically pure. The geometry is a little different from the original. The local enthusiasts who so vigorously drove the campaign to get it built succeeded in getting a developer of riverside flats to build its shell, finished in 2001. That little planning victory however left only the bare concrete, shoehorned into a very awkward space, with a god-awful 1980s-throwback shopping mall-style faηade. Inside, the 13-sided polyhedron of the original Rose becomes what is effectively an 11-sided version, with the angles rounded off. The stage takes the form of what archaeologists surmise was probably the second or third version of several built in a few short years at Henslowe's playhouse. Above ground level, we're even more in the realm of conjecture. It's a matter of getting in two galleries and the technical level before you hit the thick roof slab.
There is no flytower, no back or sidestages, not even a corridor for actors to scoot round the back of the stage. Everything else - the lighting gantries, plant rooms, foyers and bars, studio theatre.