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TV star unveils Islington Heritage Plaque to celebrate Red Bull Playhouse

(L-R) Mayor of Islington Dave Poyser, Dr Eva Griffith and Alexander Armstrong at unveiling of Red Bull Playhouse Islington Heritage Plaque

(L-R) Mayor of Islington Dave Poyser, Dr Eva Griffith and Alexander Armstrong at unveiling of Red Bull Playhouse Islington Heritage Plaque

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Performer and presenter Alexander Armstrong has unveiled an Islington Heritage Plaque in celebration of the Red Bull Playhouse, a historic Jacobean theatre.

Built around 1605, the year of the Gunpowder Plot, the Red Bull Playhouse stood in Red Bull Yard (now Hayward’s Place, off St John Street, Clerkenwell) until 1665. It was converted from the yard of an inn called ‘the Red Bull’ and was at least as large as the better-known Globe Theatre, if not larger. It became the longest-lived London Jacobean playhouse, surviving the English Civil War and Commonwealth, becoming a safe venue for entertainment into the Restoration.

Led by actor-manager Christopher Beeston, the first company to perform at the Red Bull was the Queen’s Servants’ company, known as the ‘Queen’s men’. Their patron was Anna of Denmark, James I’s wife, who introduced England’s first recorded female (masque) performers.  

The Queen’s patronage also resulted in a woman-centred emphasis in the company’s performances, exemplified by plays with strong female roles such Anne Frankford in A Woman Killed with Kindness (1603), Elizabeth I in If You Know Not Me You Know Nobody – both by Thomas Heywood, the company’s own actor-playwright – and Vittoria Corombona in John Webster’s The White Devil.

The theatre specialised in sensational presentations, full of devils, fireworks and mythical creatures. With evidence of renovations in the 1620s, it became known for a rowdy clientele.

After surreptitious and illicit performances during the Civil War and Interregnum, the Red Bull became a legitimate venue again after the Restoration in 1660 and was visited at least twice by diarist Samuel Pepys (see Notes to Editor). By 1664 the Red Bull had been given over to displays of fencing and fisticuffs, and closed in 1665.

Mr Armstrong, performer and presenter of BBC TV’s popular game show Pointless, is a descendant of one of the Jacobean company’s patrons and unveiled the plaque yesterday (Wednesday, August 29).

He said: “I was so surprised and thrilled to learn of my family connection with Tudor/Stuart theatre history. And the Red Bull Playhouse is such an important feature of that history – it’s a total joy to be able to celebrate this link.”

Dr Eva Griffith, actor, author and Islington resident, has campaigned for a commemorative plaque to the Red Bull and is delighted to see her work realised. Dr Griffith is a leading authority on the Red Bull and her book A Jacobean Company and Its Playhouse: The Queen's Servants at the Red Bull Theatre (c.1605-1619) was published in 2013:

Dr Griffith said: “This year, 2018, marks twenty years of my research into the Red Bull playhouse and I am utterly thrilled that a plaque will be unveiled on its site this summer, especially by Alexander Armstrong. The Red Bull was arguably Islington’s first purpose-built playhouse and so takes its place toward the front of the queue before the Almeida, the King’s Head, the Old Red Lion, the Park Theatre and all those in between as one of the borough’s celebrated venues for entertainment. As an old song about the playhouse goes: ‘the Bull will play the man’. Let’s pull out all the stops!”

Cllr Asima Shaikh, Islington Council’s executive member for economic development, said: “Our Islington Heritage Plaques celebrate the rich and diverse history of Islington and its people.

“The Red Bull was one of Islington’s first purpose-built playhouses, showcased plays with strong female roles, and survived some of the most turbulent decades in English history – we’re delighted to celebrate it today with a heritage plaque.”

Picture captions: 

Alexander Armstrong unveils the new Islington Heritage Plaque to celebrate the Red Bull Playhouse

An image claimed to be the stage of the Red Bull from The Wits attributed to Francis Kirkman, 1672 (Image: Islington Local History Centre)

Playbill for Swetnam, the Woman-hater, Arrainged by Women (anon) as performed at the Red Bull, 1620

Notes to Editor:

On 23 March 1661 diarist Samuel Pepys records a visit to the theatre:

“To the Red bull (where I have not been since plays came up again) ...” He continues, “At last into the pitt, where I think there was not above ten more than myself, and not 100 in the whole house”. The play, Rowley’s All Lost by Lust, was “poorly done and with so much disorder.” Undeterred, Pepys returned the following year to see Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe. He did not like that production either!

The Red Bull joins other playhouses of William Shakespeare’s era that have already been honoured with a plaque: The Fortune near Golden Lane, the Rose on the Bankside and, of course, the Globe playhouse near ‘Shakespeare’s Globe’, its living and working reconstruction, as well as the Curtain in Shoreditch.

The first company to perform at the Red Bull and led by actor-manager Christopher Beeston, was the Queen’s Servants’ company. Beeston later became the builder of the first playhouse in Drury Lane. The Red Bull could therefore be considered Islington’s own historic link with today’s ‘West End’.

 

(L-R)_Mayor_of_Islington_Dave_Poyser%2c_Dame_Sian_Phillips%2c_Dr_Eva_Griffith_and_Alexander_Armstrong_at_unveiling_of_Red_Bull_Playhouse_Islington_Heritage_Plaque

(L-R) Mayor of Islington Dave Poyser, Dame Sian Phillips, Dr Eva Griffith and Alexander Armstrong at unveiling of Red Bull Playhouse Islington Heritage Plaque

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Local_residents%2c_actors%2c_performers_and_councillors_join_Mayor_of_Islington_Dave_Poyser%2c_Dame_Sian_Phillips%2c_Dr_Eva_Griffith_and_Alexander_Armstrong_at_unveiling_of_Red_Bull_Playhouse_Islington_Heritage_Plaque

Local residents, actors, performers and councillors join Mayor of Islington Dave Poyser, Dame Sian Phillips, Dr Eva Griffith and Alexander Armstrong at unveiling of Red Bull Playhouse Islington Heritage Plaque

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Red_Bull_Playhouse_-_thought_to_be_image_of_inside_(copyright_Islington_Local_History_Centre)

Red Bull Playhouse - thought to be image of inside (copyright Islington Local History Centre)

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