Two important centenaries have collided this year – 400 years back takes us to Shakespeare’s death, while 100 years transports us to the middle of the Great War. Surprisingly, one venue unites them – an unexpected corner of Bloomsbury.
Since around 1847 critics had been complaining about the state of theatre in London* and suggesting setting up a National Theatre which would put on the best of English drama. After the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre was opened in Stratford in 1879, attention turned back to the capital and by 1913 the movement had purchased a site, on the corner of Gower Street and Keppel Street, just behind the British Museum. They though they would be able to build a theatre in time for the upcoming tercentenary of Shakespeare’s death.
The outbreak of war halted the momentum which had built up, and the site remained vacant as the organising committee had neither the time nor the money to start development. Then one member of the committee, Israel Gollancz, decided to approach the YMCA and ask them to build a “hut” on the site.
These huts were built by the YMCA to provide rest and relaxation for soldiers, and were a place for them to stay and recuperate. The Bloomsbury “hut” was specifically set up for troops from New Zealand, who were more in need than most – no chance they could get home for the two weeks of leave which was the most they might receive at a time. It was the largest “hut” the YMCA built, and on occasion more than 2,000 soldiers slept there in a single week.
It kept its Shakespearean connections, however. The pre-fabricated building was specifically designed with exposed beams on the outside, to give it an Elizabethan feel**. Inside some of the rooms were panelled, and had great brick fireplaces. Of course, the Anzacs added their own touches – a giant Maori “Kia Ora” was written over the fireplace in the lounge.
More impressively, the “hut” contained its own theatre – a small stage, but with space for an audience of around 600***. Shows were put on there and were apparently so much envied by other troops that the Australians colonised the Aldwych Theatre, which was adjacent to their hut. This being wartime, men to act were in short supply, and the shows were produced, directed and acted by women.
These included Edith Craig, a producer of note and progressive feminist and her mother Ellen Terry. The actress Fabia Drake played Henry V at the tender age of 15, apparently to great acclaim. Once a year they held a grand Shakespeare Gala with all the greatest names of the day – basically their version of Shakespeare Live! but only soldiers were allowed to attend.
There is something deeply powerful to me at the thought that soldiers, and suffragettes were a hundred years ago enjoying and celebrating Shakespeare just as I am now. What an enduring and common bond great stories are.
And what of the Shakespeare Hut? Alas, it did not endure. After the war, the hut was used to house Indian students, and some time later the site was sold. The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine now sits there. The money from the sale of the site, and from the rent, helped support the New Shakespeare Company, which performed in the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford and helped pave the way for the Royal Shakespeare Company. A National Theatre in London took longer to develop – the site near the Royal Festival, though first suggested in 1948, did not fully open until 1977.
While its legacy lived on, the hut itself fell out of memory – the research all seems to be have been done by Dr Ailsa Grant Ferguson who has pieced the story together over the last few years. Her work (one paper is available online here) sets out a great deal of additional detail****.
The Shakespeare Hut opened on 11th August 1916. As well as a centenary event (alas sold out) on Thursday this week, an exhibition about the hut and Keppel Street will go on through September in the School.
* “The Stage as it is” by Dramaticus, a pamphlet published that year, complains of the fortune of serious drama, being then edged out by opera and ballet – “singers and dancers rolling in splendid carriages … eminent tragedians plodding disconsolately by with rough coats and umbrellas”.
** Perhaps the only acceptable “mock Tudor” building ever. Except for Liberty. So one of only two acceptable “mock Tudor” buildings…
*** And now you see why I keep putting quotation marks around hut. This was no garden shed, it was a decent-sized complex…
**** It also uses the same title as me – no great coincidence considering the two subject matters at hand…