The future of the Rose

Ian McKellen. Photo: Robert Piwko
Simon Tait is a former arts correspondent of The Times and is co-editor of Arts Industry magazine.
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Last weekend saw the 25th anniversary of the momentous demonstration on Bankside when the theatre world turned out to save the archaeological remains of the Rose Theatre from the developers' bulldozers, and succeeded with Olivier’s stirring “God for Harry, England and The Rose” speech stiffening up the sinews. And though that’s longer than the Rose actually stood, the battle goes on.

Nine years later, Shakespeare in Love was the hit of 1998, walking off with no fewer than seven Oscars, and the West End producers Sonia Friedman and Disney will be hoping for similar enthusiasm for their stage version, which has its world premiere at the Noel Coward on July 23. It’s a vastly expensive undertaking, with a cast of 29, not including Gaiety who plays Crab the dog or his understudy Barney.

But the following day the producers are to give up their box office takings for a gala charity performance in aid of Chickenshed and the Rose Theatre, which has already had a close association with the film.

The set of the Globe built for the movie was modelled on what the archaeologists had uncovered of the old Rose, and the set is now owned by one of the film’s stars, Judi Dench, who also happens to be a patron of the Rose Trust. The dame had been one of the small army of actors and directors who rallied that summer weekend.

The site of the Rose Theatre in 1989
The site of the Rose Theatre in 1989

The plan now is to finish the excavation of the last third of the site, which possibly includes the original entrance, left unexplored when the campaign to preserve the site was won, with the remains being buried under concrete for possible future re-excavation, while an office block was built around it. Then they want to build a museum at street level, with a performance space above the original stage.

The trust’s chairman, archaeologist Harvey Sheldon, hopes that the Rose Revealed campaign to raise £5m will be kick-started by the evening raising £20,000, but they have a long way to go, and some tricky negotiating to do.

The Heritage Lottery Fund gave them just short of £250,000 18 months ago – when Ian McKellen, pictured above with Sheldon, launched the appeal at a British Museum breakfast – to make their plans which are now complete, and next Sheldon and his team need to get planning permission, scheduled monument consent and a long lease lined up, to persuade HLF to give them another £1m.

More awkward, though, is the rapprochement with the new owners of the site, Ho Bee Land, who plan to demolish the 1989 office building and replace it with flats. There’s no suggestion that Dench and McKellen will have to call out the Royal Corps of Thespians again, but the Rose needs to get a generous leasehold arrangement. Ho Bee are based in Singapore and although its chairman/CEO, Mr Chua Thian Poh, was recently honoured by the Singapore government for his philanthropy, there is no record of Ho Bee having any interest in British heritage.

But if Far Eastern interest in our ancient theatre history is as yet unmeasured, there is plenty of potential fundraising enthusiasm here. Four of the tickets for the gala evening are being give to a teacher and three pupils from Watford Grammar School for Girls who in May raised almost £900 for the Rose with open air productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest. Sheldon hopes with such support he will be able to open the site to the public in the autumn of 2017.