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The Red Bull Playhouse Project

The Red Bull Playhouse Project

Four hundred years ago, during the period 1605-6, a theatre was built in the suburbs of London that was to rival Shakespeare's Globe.

The Red Bull playhouse, which was an inn-yard theatre erected in Clerkenwell, was built to house an acting company which was parallel to that of Shakespeare's company, the King's Men. The Red Bull's company was called the Queen's Servants after their patron, Queen Anna of Denmark, King James I's wife.

Where William Shakespeare was the central actor-playwright of the King's Men, Thomas Heywood was the leading actor-playwright of the Queen's Servants, and soon after the theatre was built, Heywood wrote an unusual play for the company. From subsequent evidence found in a range of early modern sources, we know that this play, The Rape of Lucrece, was a big success in its day. It was published in 5 editions from 1608 to 1638 and such was its status as a sure-fire hit, it was performed at a number of venues by companies lucky enough to have it in their repertoire.

Woodcut of the Red Bull Playhouse

The story of the rape and suicide of Lucretia - the virtuous wife of the Roman patrician Collatine - by Sextus Tarquin, a son of the reigning and tyrannical King Tarquin, might not sound like a rip-roaring box office hit. However, throughout entertainment history, sex and violence have always been winners. Unlike Shakespeare's narrative poem on the subject which used Ovid, the classical source used for this tragedy was the Roman historian Livy. The resulting play was a much more Cecil B. de Mille-type scale of production, which includes both the rape and the consequent civil war in Rome that saw the end of the Tarquins and the beginning of the first Republic. Moreover, Heywood did something unique for his Jacobean tragedy. He introduced into the drama a most extraordinary selection of songs. It is possible that the inclusion of these songs makes The Rape of Lucrece the first music-based entertainment for the public stage.

In 2005-7 the Lions part are mounting a number of events to coincide with the anniversary of the building of this extraordinary theatre that survived the civil war and interregnum periods as an entertainment space. It began with Heywood's Lucrece which was staged at St. Bartholomew's Priory, Smithfield over three nights in October 2005. Dr. Eva Griffith of the University of Durham who is currently writing a book on the Red Bull and has been a Lions member for seven years is overall director of the project. Rosalind Cressy co-produced Lucrece for the Lions part. An academic conference also took place in 2005 in collaboration with the Centre for Metropolitan History, and it included reconstructions of the jigs, ballads and drolls that were a much loved part of the Red Bull's life.