Reconstruction of the Boar’s Head Playhouse from 1599, by C Walter Hodges

Excavation of Shakespearean-era ‘theatre pub’ The Boar’s Head Playhouse begins

MOLA team
25.09.2019

We have begun excavations of The Boar’s Head Playhouse in Whitechapel, London, in advance of construction of new student housing by Unite Students. The location of the 16th century playhouse is known from historical records and it is referenced in one of the earliest accounts of theatre in London, but it is hoped that excavation of the site will better understanding of this often-overlooked theatrical site.

The excavation, funded by Unite Students – the UK’s largest student accommodation provider who is developing the site – and monitored by Historic England, is opening to the public, who are invited to join pre-bookable tours on Saturday the 5 October 2019. More information and details on how to book can be found here

Before the 16th century inn was converted into a playhouse in 1598, historical accounts reveal that plays were being performed in its open-air spaces. One such account describes an incident on the 5 September 1557, 10 years before the Red Lion Playhouse, 20 years before The Curtain and The Theatre and 30 years before The Rose were established, where the Lord Mayor is ordered to send his officers to forestall a scheduled performance at the site of a 'lewd' play entitled 'A Sack Full of News'.

When the owner of the Boar’s Head, Oliver Woodliffe, converts the inn, he adds a series of tiered galleries, a stage and a central yard around it. A year later the site is upgraded again, with extra galleries and a roof over the stage. The 360º theatre allowed audiences to view performances from all angles with the playhouse hosting a number of popular acting troupes, including the Lord Derby’s Men and the Lord Worcester’s Men, later the Queen’s Men, led by the famous actor and playwright Thomas Greene.

Amongst the plays performed were raucous comedies including, No-body and Some-body, with the character No-body ‘attyred in a pair of breeches which were made to come up to his neck, with his armes out of his pockets’ and a chronicle of the life and reign of Elizabeth I If You Know Not Me, You Know No Bodie.

We are hoping to discover artefacts that relate to the playhouse, the performers and theatregoers that frequented the site, and are exploring areas of the playhouse’s structure, including the galleries on the eastern side of the stage.

Once exposed and studied, the remains will be preserved in-situ within the footprint of the development. The new student accommodation at the site will celebrate and continue the extraordinary theatrical heritage of the site, by featuring a community performance space as part of the student accommodation building. The finished property will provide homes for approximately 915 students when it opens in 2021.

Look out for updates on the progress of the dig on the Unite blog and Twitter, and the MOLA blog and Twitter.

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