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The Red Bull, ‘once a rival to the Globe’, set to be awarded plaque

PUBLISHED: 08:07 16 August 2018

Dr Eva Griffith standing beneath an arch that could have been the original entrance to the Red Bull theatre. Picture: Dr Eva Griffith

Dr Eva Griffith standing beneath an arch that could have been the original entrance to the Red Bull theatre. Picture: Dr Eva Griffith

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The site of a once proud Jacobean playhouse in Clerkenwell is to be commemorate by a heritage plaque on Wednesday.

Claimed to be the stage of the Red Bull from The Wits attributed to Francis Kirkman, 1672. Picture:  Islington Local History CentreClaimed to be the stage of the Red Bull from The Wits attributed to Francis Kirkman, 1672. Picture: Islington Local History Centre

It is believed the Red Bull theatre was built in 1605, the year of the gunpowder plot, and stood until 1665.

The venue, which would be in modern day Hayward’s Place, was the longest-serving of London’s early playhouse theatres and rivalled Shakespeare’s Globe south of the river.

Dr Eva Griffith, a 17th century historian who has campaigned for the heritage plaque, said: “It was a really colourful and innovative place that would have been great fun to go to.

“The Red Bull produced theatre for all citizens in the square mile of London. But it was a place where working people lived rather than just a banking area,”

Thomas Killigrew (1612 to 1683) by Sir Anthony Ban Dyck, c.1635 . Picture: Public DomainThomas Killigrew (1612 to 1683) by Sir Anthony Ban Dyck, c.1635 . Picture: Public Domain

She added: “We are planning a fun and frolicky day to celebrate the Red Bull Playhouse. The people of Islington should come to the plaque unveiling and exhibition because this was the borough’s first proper theatre.”

Eva specialises in Shakespearean history theatre history and has also written a book about the Red Bull Theatre.

Her love of the venue began 20 years ago when she was about to begin her Master’s. Eva said she was attracted to the topic because she enjoyed London-centric theatre and had a particular interest in the works of Thomas Heywood, whose plays were often performed there.

It has long been known the playhouse stood in Clerkenwell, but its exact location had puzzled historians over the years. That is, until Eva found proved it was in Hayward’s Place.

Dr Eva Griffith standing beneath an arch that could have been the original entrance to the Red Bull theatre. Picture: Dr Eva GriffithDr Eva Griffith standing beneath an arch that could have been the original entrance to the Red Bull theatre. Picture: Dr Eva Griffith

The academic searched for information about the old playhouse in Islington Local History Centre, where she found reference to it being on the site of the Seckford estate.

She knew the Seckford dynasty had strong links to Suffolk and this led her to an library in Ipswich.

It was in this archive that Eva found plans for the the original Red Bull theatre.

“I was able to prove that the Red Bull theatre was in Hayward’s Place,” she said.

Thomas Killigrew (1612 to 1683) by Sir Anthony Ban Dyck, c.1635 . Picture: Public DomainThomas Killigrew (1612 to 1683) by Sir Anthony Ban Dyck, c.1635 . Picture: Public Domain

“I have had lots of exciting experiences in my life but when I found those documents I jumped for joy in the dusty old archive.”

Delving further into the history of the playhouse, Eva said: “Shakespeare’s company was the King’s Men; the Red Bull’s was the Queen’s Men, whose patron was Queen Anna of Denmark, an innovative consort queen who brought women performers to courtly England when no woman was allowed to act on the public stage.”

Eva described Queen Anna as “innovative” because she allowed female actors to perform in court, at locations such as Greenwich and Whitehall.

She also credited the monarch with introducing European Masque-style acts to courtly performances.

Claimed to be the stage of the Red Bull from The Wits attributed to Francis
Kirkman, 1672. Picture:  Islington Local History CentreClaimed to be the stage of the Red Bull from The Wits attributed to Francis Kirkman, 1672. Picture: Islington Local History Centre

Eva said the Red Bull was a square-shaped theatre that became popular, in part, due to its penchant for special effects, such as fireworks and actors entering the stage on swinging ropes.

The venue, owned by a tradesman called Aaron Holland, was reportedly disliked by John Webster, a renowned playwright, who suggested his work was too sophisticated for the venue in the printed edition of one of his plays, The White Devil.

His comments came after the play was performed at the Red Bull, where audiences are believed to have received it poorly.

Eva said: “Some of intellectual playwrights looked down their noses at the Red Bull because they thought it was selling stories lacking education.

“But this was an important, brave theatre.”

Queen Anna’s Men were the first troupe to perform at the Red Bull, where they resided from 1605 to 1617. They were succeeded by groups such as the Prince Charles’ men and The Red Bull company.

She started a crowdfunding campaign, which has raised more than £1,300, to fund an an exhibition and reception in honour of the old theatre.

This will take place on Wednesday in the crypt of St.James’s Church, Clerkenwell. See crowdfunder.co.uk/red-bull-plaque-day for full details.

The heritage plaque will be unveiled by Alexander Armstrong, an actor who starred in comedy double-act Armstrong and Miller.

This is significant as he is a descendent of Edward Somerset, fourth earl of Worcester, who was a one-time patron of the Red Bull Theatre.

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