History of British Theatre

The earliest forms of theatre in Britain were the religious ritual performances of the native Britons. The first theatre in Britain that we may recognize as such was that of the Romans. While we know a great deal about the Roman theatre its effect on Britain seems to have been limited – theatres were small and not particularly numerous (and may have been used for sports, gladiatorial contests and other mass spectacle entertainments more than for classical theatre).
The ruins of a Roman Theatre in St. Albans still remain as a tourist attraction in Britain today. After the Roman pull out the chief performances in Britain came from travelling bards, or Scops, who provided entertainment to crowds at feasts, at events, or in nobles’ courts, usually in the form of epic poetry. Caedmon’s Hymn and the saga of Beowulf are two of the very few surviving stories that were performed during that time.
Organized theatrical performance would soon supplant the Scops, thanks in large part to the spread of Christianity and the rise of the trade guilds in British towns. In the churches the liturgy was increasingly dramatized throughout the Middle Ages, with the architecture of the Churches themselves being used to great effect, with choirs of “angels” being flown in from the lofts and other spectacular special effects. Soon plays like “Everyman” were being written by anonymous priests who recognized the power theatre had to convey the Church’s teachings to the masses.

And though the church dramas played an important role in nurturing mediaeval drama (and a very important role in developing the playwriting talents of the clergy) a much more immediate and visceral theatre was being forged outside of the churches in the mediaeval towns, in the form of the Cycle Plays. The Cycle Plays were given at the feast of Corpus Christi, and were performed on wagons that could be pulled to several different stations throughout a town. Over 40 individual plays could make up a cycle, with the shows beginning early in the morning and ending as darkness fell.
The plays were anonymously written (probably by clergymen) and were dramatizations of the major events of the Bible. After the Cycle Plays waned in the later Middle Ages the wagon-based performances remained, with troupes of actors travelling from town to town performing in courtyards, taverns and wherever else they could secure a paying audience. These travelling players were likely the first taste of live theatre for a young boy from Stratford-upon-Avon named William Shakespeare.
The years between Shakespeare arriving in London up until the closing of the theatres in 1642 can easily be called the Golden Age of British drama, for Shakespeare and his contemporaries composed a body of work during that time unequalled in British (and arguable world) theatrical tradition. The plays of the English Renaissance are unrivalled in their rhetorical might. They are, at their best, compelling stories of individual struggle and grand national narratives.
But in 1642 the Puritans banned all theatrical performances in the heat of misguided religious fundamentalism. Until the Restoration in 1660 theatre went underground, performed in secret and devolving into less sophisticated entertainments. There is comparatively little written about the British theatre of the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries for good reason – next to the Renaissance what came after is of vastly inferior quality, almost always concerned with financial success more than any artistic, aesthetic or literary merit.
There are exceptions – Sheridan was a playwright of some note, and John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera a seminal moment in the birth of British musical theatre. But no one could even come close to rivalling Shakespeare until the last years of the 19th century, with the arrival of the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw. His plays are too polemical to supplant Shakespeare’s universality, but they did sweep away the centuries of mediocrity moving realism onto the English stage. The rise of Naturalistic drama dove-tailed perfectly with the rise of the director as the creative head of play production.
With the passing of The Theatres Act in 1968 British Drama was finally freed from the last shackles of the past, when the powers of the Lord Chamberlain to license all plays was abolished. With the birth of the Royal National Theatre in 1963, the discovery of the remains of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, and the widespread embrace of theatre by Britons in the 20th and 21st centuries the conditions are ripe for another Golden Age of British drama in the years to come. The White Bear theatre
The White Bear Theatre Club is a fringe theatre venue, established in 1988 in the White Bear pub in Kennington. It is run by Artistic Director Michael Kingsbury. Theatre practitioners who have worked at The White Bear include Joe Penhall, Hugh Allison, Mark Little, Emily Watson, Tamsin Outhwaite, Kwame Kwei-Armah, Vicky Featherstone, Torben Betts, Lucinda Coxon, Adam Spreadbury-Maher (Associate director 2008 – 2009) and Chris Loveless (Associate Director, 2009 – ). It is said to be one of the most interesting fringe theatres due to its small size and the intimacy of the acting space.
Previous productions include: Bodyclock (Time Out Critics Choice), Cosi, Dracula (A new musical by Alex Loveless adapted from the original story by Bram Stoker), Life’s A Dream, Feathers, The Return of the Soldier, The Card Index, Spin and I Only Want To Be With You. The theatre has been described by London review magazine Time Out as ‘Fringe Theatre of the first order, The White Bear must be saluted for staging such work’ and Michael Billington from The Guardian was quoted as saying ‘Fringe theatre at his best. ‘
The White Bear has received numerous awards including Time Out Best Fringe Venue, Peter Brook Empty Space Award for Best Up and Coming Venue, Carling London Fringe Awards for Best Actor and Best Production. Southwark Playhouse Southwark Playhouse Theatre Company was founded in 1993 by Juliet Alderdice, Tom Wilson & Mehmet Ergen. They identified the need for a high quality accessible theatre which would also act as a major resource for the community. The theatre quickly put down strong roots in Southwark, developing an innovative, free at source, education programme.
It has worked closely with teachers, Southwark Borough Council, businesses and government agencies to improve educational achievement and raise aspirations. This programme is in great demand and attracts substantial funding each year. The theatre’s primary objectives are • to produce high quality, cutting edge theatre in both traditional and non-traditional theatre environments • to offer a fully resourced and wholly integrated education and community programme, providing opportunities for people of all ages in Southwark to engage with the borough’s rich heritage and cultural potential to support the work of emerging theatre practitioners and companies by providing a well-equipped venue at an affordable cost, with appropriate resources and guidance • to intertwine the artistic, education and community programmes so that fresh insights and opportunities are offered to broad sectors of users within the Southwark community The Drill Hall With a national and international reputation, The Drill Hall is the local theatre and arts centre for Bloomsbury and Fitzrovia in London’s West End.
Since 1977, The Drill Hall has produced, developed, nurtured and supported over 10,000 artists and productions. We have toured award-winning shows and events all over the world. Through our highly praised education programme we tackle homophobia and bullying and tour to schools, work with teachers, run youth theatres specifically for LGBT young people and have an artist-development programme. Our community theatre troupe, The Drill Hall Darlings, is now in its fourth year. It always welcomes new members and performs at The Drill Hall throughout the year.
We have a wide-ranging workshop programme, a free Sure Start drop-in for local children under five and their families, and a regular programme of shows and storytelling for 7 to 11-year-olds. The Drill Hall is a major hub for the arts and media communities, providing some of the most sought after central London rehearsal facilities and radio and television recording spaces. We also offer low-cost meeting space for local community groups. The Drill Hall is one of The Theatres Trust’s new Ecovenues. Through this prestigious scheme we aim to make The Drill Hall more ‘sustainable’. Alexander Grant
It is quite easy to make a case for Alexander Grant’s being the greatest male dancer ever produced by a British company. He was a character dancer of infinite variety: technically strong enough to dance Symphonic Variations in his younger days, but remembered principally for the huge number of roles he created (particularly for Ashton), and for the new life he gave to characters he took over from others. For several years in the 70s, Grant directed the Royal Ballet’s educational group, Ballet for All, and in 1976 he left the company for a seven year stint as director of the National Ballet of Canada.
These days he is still occasionally to be seen on stage with ENB, and he also coaches and produces – he was responsible for the recent successful Scottish Ballet revival of Fille. A close friend of Ashton’s, he is still an irreplaceable source of information and advice. But his name conjures up, for those who saw him, spectacular dancing – with no trace of ‘look at me’ – and above all the wonderful range of characters he brought to life before our eyes.

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