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Moving theatrical experience of 1598

Four hundred years ago this week the weather in London was so cold that the Thames froze near London Bridge and people were able to cross the river on foot.

In Shoreditch, to the north of the river, just outside the jurisdiction of the city, in the parish of St Leonard's near Bishopsgate, a suspicious-looking group of men might have been observed at work. Under cover of winter darkness, they were stealthily dismantling London's first purpose-built playhouse, the Theatre, with the intention of rebuilding it on Bankside in Southwark.

Bankside, south of the river and also outside the jurisdiction of the city authorities, was already well-known as a place of entertainment. Here citizens enjoyed bear and bull-baiting and frequented the "stews" or brothels.

The Theatre had been built in 1576 by James Burbage, actor and carpenter,whose son Richard later became famous as the first interpreter of Shakespeare's tragic heroes. James's other son, Cuthbert, later described the circumstances leading to the hurried removal with deceptive simplicity:

"Hee (James) built this house (the Theatre) upon leased ground, by which meanes the landlord and hee had a great suite in law, and, by his death, the like trouble fell on us, his sonnes; wee then bethought us of altering from thence, and at like expence built the Globe."

After James Burbage's death, in grave financial straits, with the landlord, Giles Allen, refusing to renew the lease on the Theatre, Richard and Cuthbert took action.

There was a partial thaw on December 27 and, on the 28th, a heavy snowfall, under cover of which the Burbages, a carpenter called Peter Streete and a dozen workmen took the Theatre apart. If the Thames was no longer frozen, they may have crossed by London Bridge, probably taking the timbers in wagons drawn by oxen, to a vacant site near the Rose Theatre. Allen sued for trespass - litigation lasted two years - and building costs were high. The Burbages took an unprecedented step: they brought in five "sharers", including William Shakespeare, to own, collectively, a half-share in the building. By the spring of 1599 the Globe was in business and in September Thomas Platter, a young doctor from Basle, Switzerland, reported seeing Julius Caesar there.

The "flit" will be commemorated on December 28, when a play written by Globe actor John McEnery will be performed in a car park near the site of the Theatre off Curtain Road. Get there by 2.30pm for food and street entertainment before the play at 3pm, then follow two oxen and a symbolic timber over the river to the reconstructed Globe for mulled wine. Tickets cost #163;6 from the Hackney Empire (tel: 0181 985 2424).

Heather Neill

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