TAITMAIL 2022, a year of two Roses

It was a coincidence of fate. At the moment the survival of the oldest Elizabethan theatre against the odds and its bright future were being celebrated, the probable closure of the modern one modelled on it was announced.

Peter Hall had a way of making theatres to his own eyebrow, as he might have said.  The Rose Kingston was his last. In the early 80s the Barbican Theatre was designed to his own specifications as artistic director of the RSC which was to be resident there, and the Rose in Kingston was his long-cherished notion of a community theatre based on a very much enlarged version of the Elizabethan Rose.


Hall had been a very publicity aware campaigner for saving the archaeological remains of the old theatre back in 1989, to the  point when he took the entire cast of his West End production of The Merchant of Venice out of rehearsal and into taxis – including Dustin Hoffman, Ralph Fiennes and Geraldine James – for a photocall amid the remains. He said he was fascinated by the sense of nearness between audience and cast, and the egalitarian nature of the design.
 
So it was poignant on Monday that while we were in Southwark Cathedral celebrating 30 years since those actors had helped save the Rose Bankside from the bulldozers and we could hear about the positive future plans for it, commuters in trains running close by were reading about the fate of the Rose Kingston.
 
Hall was captivated by the intimacy he saw on the Rose site, he said, how animated the unseated pit area must have been, how the apron stage carried the action into the auditorium, how marvellous it owl die  reproduce that. He was less convinced by the 2,000 people crammed into an area barely 12m by 12m, unthinkable today.

It was an impression he had with him when he was discussing the possibility of a truly community theatre with the broadcaster David Jacobs, a Kingston resident and the theatre trust's first chair. It would be a producing theatre but with an activities programme devised for the community. It would be owned by a charitable trust, funded by Kingston Council and Kingston University. 
 
Frustrated by building delays, he presented an “in the raw” production of As You Like It in 2004, and it eventually opened in January 2008 with his Uncle Vanya after which he stood down as artistic director. It had cost £11m some of it Hall's own money
 
But it never really worked. The intimacy couldn’t be replicated for a 900 seat 21stcentury playhouse, and the groundlings, very far from rioting, meakly sat on the floor cross-legged. Its ambition to be a kind of National Theatre of the Suburbs couldn’t stand up to the new post-2008 credit crunch austerity and the melting away of sponsorship and donations; it has always been a struggle. 

Now the council has decided that its vital £220,000 a year grant will cease in 2022, with its bursary scheme already halted. “We think they can act more commercially and become more efficient in the way they are run” the council leader said with syntactical disregard. "We face having to make savings and simply can’t afford to spend more than a quarter of a million each year on this. We have always said the theatre should be self-sustaining in the long term”. But the present trust chairman says glumly that there are no more funding resources: “If there were we would have done it already”.

The original, though, should have been doomed within weeks of it being found, according to the rules of the 1980s. There was anxiety that in the frantic development in London at the time, the buried heritage was in danger of being swept away. The new rule was that a developer in London would have to give time for an archaeological investigation before building, whatever was found would be recorded and the bulldozers could then do their worst. 

The Rose was different, an almost complete preserved Shakespearean theatre, and against the protestations of minsters and English Heritage the archaeologists called in the actors, and with them the media, questions were asked in the house, Dame Peggy Ashcroft threatened to lay her frail 82-year-old figure in front of the behemoths, and there was not only a rethink but a change of opinion. The Rose was put to sleep and built around, until such time as it was propitious to re-examine it.

That time is now, the present owners of the site are more than sympathetic giving the Rose Playhouse Trust a lease to 2042, the Heritage Lottery Fund has coughed up, the heritage authorities have declared it a World Heritage Site, and at ground level in three years’ time there is to be a museums and performance space, visible through glass walls as designed by the architect Nick Helm. The optimistic appeal is on to raise £10m.

So 2022 will be a year of mixed fortunes, a year when the Rose Bankside reopens and its modern shadow the Rose Kingston closes. 

 

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