Red Bull Playhouse plaque

  • 22
  • Oct

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.

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, who wrote: “To the Red bull (where I have not been since plays came up again) … 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!

By 1664 the Red Bull had been given over to displays of fencing and fisticuffs, and closed in 1665.

Local residents, councillors, actors and performers join the Mayor of Islington Dave Poyser , Dr Eva Griffith and Alexander Armstrong for the unveiling of a new Islington Heritage Plaque

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 on Wednesday 29 August 2018.

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.

She said: “This year, 2018, marks 20 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!”

Search all Islington Heritage Plaques here

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