Changing London

The Blackfriar and the re-imaging indoor Shakespearean theatre at the Globe

Lying just a stone’s throw from the shiny new Blackfriars station – a fabulous structure with platforms stretching right across the Thames – the Blackfriar pub looks out of place against all the modern development going on in this part of London. The exposed outside terrace out the front seems to be little more than a traffic island, where drinkers find themselves up close to the fumes from vehicles that keep the roads around here busy, yet it in all weathers I find it popular.

The real joy from visiting the Blackfriar is, however, when you go inside this historic Art Nouveau Grade II masterpiece, which was re-built in 1905 in the Arts and Craft style on the site of a Dominican friary. The cavernous building features a marble-topped bar in the main saloon, which also boasts timber flooring, marble on the walls and a wood-panelled ceiling. In a nod to the site’s past, friars appear throughout the pub in sculptures, mosaics and reliefs.

One of the carved slogans (“Industry is Ale, ‘Haste is Slow”) always makes me chuckle whenever I visit the bar. Throughout the bar, monks are depicted taking part in a variety of activities, such as gardening (they are shown pushing a wheelbarrow), picking fruit, doing the weekly wash and sleeping. If – as I have done before – you arrive early when meeting a friend, there is no shortage of art to look at on the walls.

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The Blackfriar pub, Blackfriars

Originally built in 1875, the 1905 modifications resulted from designs by architect H. Fuller-Clark and artist Henry Poole. Today, it is owned Nicholson’s and, as well as the main bar which serves a great range of guest ales, has a small restaurant area out the back.

But had developers got their way, the drinking established would have been demolished long ago. It took a high profile demolition by a campaign led by Sir John Betjeman to save it from demolition. Now with its Grade II* status the pub is protected for future generations.

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Inside the Blackfriar

Dominican friary

In medieval times London was surrounded by numerous religious institutions, including (from about 1220) friaries – bases for friars who were meant to serve townspeople, rather than simply building up vast estates. They needed to be near the City so they could conduct their outreach work, but the centre itself was expensive and cramped. The site that is now partly occupied by the Blackfriar pub was then situated on the banks of the river Fleet (which flowed where New Bridge Street is now built) and so offered the ideal spot for a friary.

The Blackfriars – the name deriving from black robes of Dominican friars – who moved here in 1275 from their first house in Shoe Lane when Robert Fitzwalter granted them two Norman fortresses as the foundation for a larger site. And Edward I allowed the religious house to rebuild the City wall, so it enclosed their complex. The buildings would be used for important state occasions, such as Privy Council and Parliament meetings. The 1529 divorce hearing of Catherine of Aragon and Henry VIII was also held here.

Indoor theatre

After the Dissolution of the monasteries (the friary was closed in 1538), Blackfriars became Crown lands and land was leased to tenants. James Burbage – who had established the country’s first successful playhouse in Shoreditch (known as the Theatre) in 1576 – bought a large hall within the old friary buildings in 1596 for £600 from Sir William More of Loseley and planned to open an indoor theatre (there had previously been one on the site, but it closed in 1583 after a dispute over the lease). You may recall from one of my earlier blogs that he was having problems renewing the lease at his main venue, but he also wanted somewhere that the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (formed with William Shakespeare and other actors in 1594) could perform plays during the winter months.

The Lord Mayor had banned performances, so – as Burbage had done with Theatre – chose the Blackfriars site because it although it was within the City walls, it was a royal liberty and therefore beyond the authority’s control. He hoped the new venue would attract a higher class of patrons, who would choose walk from their homes in the immediate area, rather needing to cross the Thames and visit one of the new theatres on Bankside.

“Burbage had tremendous ambitions for this new theatre,” writes Catharine Arnold in her book, Globe. “He put his heart and soul into it. He wanted it to be ready before the lease ran out on the Theatre, so he could transplant his company of brilliant players to the new theatre at once before they could be forced out by a grasping landlord.”

Burbage therefore invested in lavish decorations which rivalled the staterooms of Whitehall and Hampton Court. He even move onto the site to live, so he could oversee the project.

But Burbage soon encountered trouble at Blackfriars as well, with rich and influential people (led by a lady called Elizabeth Russell) living elsewhere in the old friary didn’t want what they believed would be a rowdy venue as a neighbour. They believed there would be “great annoyance and trouble ….the great resort and gathering together of all manner of vagrant and lewde persons.” And so the Privy Council stopped him opening a theatre he had invested heavily in.

Burbage died in 1597, leaving the closed Blackfriars theatre to his son, Richard, who from 1600, rented the playhouse to a troupe of child actors. But some of the plays performed there became quite controversial, not least because they offended the king. Things came to a head in 1608 with the performance of a political satire called Tragedy of Byron which outrage the French Ambassador and so, by way of apology, the theatre company was banned.

And so Richard Burbage seized his chance to take back the theatre on a 21-year lease at £40 per annum, opening in 1608 the Blackfriars as a winter venue for the King’s Men (the acting company had been the Lord Chamberlain’s men, but after receiving patronage from King James in 1603 they changed their name).

Blackfriars re-imagined

To get a sense of what the Blackfriars was like inside for audiences you need to hop over the Thames. The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, which is part of the Globe complex on Bankside and opened in 2014, is not a direct replica of Burbage’s building, but it did certainly inspire it.

Today, it’s used from October to April when it would simply have be too cold for performances at the outdoor venue next door. And that was very much a similar set-up the Chamberlain’s Men (later the King’s Men) followed – although then of course winter shows were across the river at Blackfriars. Shakespeare wrote plays such The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest with indoor playhouses specifically in mind.

Watching a play at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is a magical, intimate experience. It is much smaller than the Globe (which holds about three thousand people, in contrast to 600 capacity at the indoor venue). As was the case in Shakespeare’s day, candles provide an important source of light for many performances. These can be found on seven chandeliers, as well as on the pillars that support the galleries.

And given the lavish decorations used, the Playhouse has been described as a jewel box. In the 17th century indoor theatres attracted a wealthier audience than the outdoor ones, so venues needed to make them very appealing places inside.

If you look up at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, you will see a ceiling painted with a depiction of the goddess of the moon, surrounded by clouds, stars, cherubs and putti. The design here is based not on a theatre, but the 17th century ceiling of Cullen House in Scotland.

The cheapest seats are in the pit in front of the stage, with more expensive ones in one of the two U-shaped galleries – built using English oak – wrapped around the edge of the venue. There are also boxes at the side of the stage and for some performances it is also possible to sit behind it as well.

People in the galleries and the pit sit on benches (made from European softwood), with no back rests, as was the case in Shakespeare’s day, so it can get quite uncomfortable. But I am sure most would agree that was takes places on the stage would make up for it….

Playhouses, such as the Blackfriars, would have had trapdoors, both above and below the stage, allowing for Gods and other spirits to descend from the heavens on a winch and evil spirits entered from below.

As little is known about what the Blackfriars looked like to audiences, the team behind the indoor playhouse relied on plans unearthed in 1969 for another theatre. Originally, it was believed the drawings (perhaps of a playhouse called the Cockpit) were of made by Inigo Jones in 1616. But more recent research suggests they were from 1660 and made by Philip Webb, a student of Jones.

The actual shell of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse was built at the same time as the Globe, but due to a lack of funds couldn’t be completed. So until its opening in 2014, it was used education workshops and rehearsals. While the new theatre is a wonderful space, it would have been a real joy if it could have been constructed in its original location in Blackfriars. Given all the development in Blackfriars in recent years that just wasn’t possible. For now, we have to make do with having a drink and soaking up the past at the Blackfriar pub.

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