Princeton scholar Marvin Carlson wrote his influential book The Haunted Stage in 2001, describing theatre as a "memory machine", in which he refers to allusion in performance as "ghosting" and later stages as "haunted" by earlier ones. By this model, there is no venue in London spookier than the Rose, Bankside, whose unique layering of theatrical history, for me at least, never gets old.
Discovered in 1989 during the excavation of foundations for a new office building, the remains of the original 1587 Rose Theatre – Southwark's first – provided unprecedented insights into early modern performance practice. The archaeologists' findings played a major role in enabling the success of one of the rejuvenated South Bank's greatest triumphs: now the Rose's noisy neighbour again, Shakespeare's Globe. The reconstructed Globe is in part informed by chocolate-box Tudorism; for example, the building's exposed timbers satisfy our expectations of early modern architecture but in fact the original Globe was whitewashed all over. Where the Globe offers to transport legions of tourists back to a package-holiday Elizabethan London, the Rose's project is more modest but also somehow more ambitious: it provides a modern performance space which is in constant negotiation with its sixteenth-century forebear.
The space, for those not familiar with it, is an intimate studio theatre which seats fifty or so on three sides of the playing area, behind which, a metal railing cordons off the broad pit which contains the remains of the old Rose. The archaeological site is marked out with red neon strip-lighting which shows the shape of the lost theatre, while a pool of water in the bottom can be an atmospheric reflective surface when well-lit, and the concrete ledge on the far side provides a supplementary performance space which the Rose's productions have often made inventive use of. With my humanities student hat on, I like to bask in the post-modern aptness of all this: performing twenty-first century anxieties amid the literal ruins of our theatrical heritage. More straightforwardly, though, it provides an unusual divided performance space. A production which is predominantly very intimate can suddenly introduce a contrasting element by moving the performance to a distant stage, separated from the audience by that evocative chasm.
Admittedly, the Rose scores relatively low on creature comforts (patrons are encouraged to use the facilities at the nearby Globe), but they do run a makeshift bar in the entrance, and, conscious of the chilly, unheated auditorium, hand out blankets in the winter months. Decorated with innumerable posters for past productions, the foyer has an informal, friendly atmosphere, and also features an informative mini-exhibition about the theatre. Given its central location, the Rose also demonstrates a laudable sense of being a local theatre, and offers discounts to Southwark residents.
For some, the programme puts too much emphasis on revivals of Shakespeare, though these are often bold and innovative: the recent, counter-cultural As You Like It is a case in point. In the last year, the Rose has also staged the plays of early twentieth-century heavyweights George Bernard Shaw and Luigi Pirandello, as well as lesser-known early modern plays The Alchemist and Dido, Queen of Carthage, and contemporary work like Sappho... in Nine Fragments which, like the Rose itself, interlaces ancient and modern. Its programme may be less eclectic than those of some other venues, but it is carefully chosen to make optimum use of the theatre's haunted condition.