The Rose Theatre: An Elizabethan Tragedy

06/08/2012 15:22 BST | Updated 05/10/2012 10:12 BST

Round the back of London's South Bank, something important is hidden away. It's within easy walk of a currently rammed Olympic transport hub, but unlike London Bridge, there's no one in a purple and orange overall to offer helpful and insistent directions. In fact, you'd be forgiven for thinking there'd been something of a cover up. I'm talking about the Rose Theatre - one of the most significant locations in English literary history. And its remains are currently semi-visible in the basement of an eighties tower block.

For anyone older than me, this is probably already old news. But then, that might be the problem. In 1989, there was a much-publicised campaign to save The Rose, as archaeological excavations ground to a premature halt and Laurence Olivier gave the project his backing in his last recorded appearance, almost with his dying breath. Unfortunately, that campaign ended, unsuccessfully, in 1989, and media interest dwindled accordingly. Which is, to say the least, a shame.

The Rose was, if not the birthplace, then the cradle of Elizabethan theatre. It's the place where Marlowe's dramatic poetry wowed its first audiences, where Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy brought the revenge play genre to bloody, elemental life, and where a young actor from the provinces called William Shakespeare had his first crack at this writing lark, and decided it might be worth sticking with it. By contrast, Rose Court, the building currently occupying the site, is the headquarters of the Crown Prosecution Service, and of a company called Trayport, the website of which promises to 'make it easier for energy market participants to profit across multiple diverse liquidity pools'.

Many people find the language of Shakespearean verse difficult to understand. To these people, I would recommend a brief glimpse at the obfuscatory corporate clutter of the Trayport website. 'Connectivity' abounds. Meanwhile, the foundations of the Rose, hastily preserved in a makeshift and hard-won buffer zone, languish in the wholly singular and non-diverse liquidity pool of a few feet of murky water. The timbers of the site were filled in to prevent them cracking under exposure; the best solution rushed archaeologists had to protect the few fragile links our time still possesses to the theatre of Shakespeare's London before the constructors moved in.

Now, however, the Rose Theatre Trust are attempting to raise a large amount of money to complete the excavations that were abandoned 23 years ago. They want to preserve the remains for public display, along with any finds they might turn up - and who knows what might be down there, and what light it could cast on the man who the British Museum's recent exhibition, 'Shakespeare: Staging the World', describes as our 'greatest cultural contribution' to humanity?

British people are justly proud of Shakespeare - his words formed one of the focal moments of Danny Boyle's Olympic opening ceremony, and not only his work but the historical context from which it sprang are responsible for a number of our most persistent national myths, including those we have given to the wider world. There is so much we can potentially learn about the man and his time from a full excavation of the Rose Theatre, and it saddened me to hear that the dedicated volunteers who want to open this window onto our cultural past for the benefit of the present and future have twice been refused Heritage Lottery Funding.

The Rose needs our help. Until money and high-profile endorsements, of the kind the campaign enjoyed in the 80s, start rolling in, it is impossible to say how much might be lost. The remains of the Rose have been preserved in a shabby compromise which consigns them to an uncertain, Schrodinger's cat-style deterioration beneath the crushing weight of corporate concrete. The symbolism is so comic it's hard to believe that it was unintentional; even in the 80s, surely a hefty tower block stomping all over our cultural heritage and relegating it to musty darkness was somebody's idea of a cosmic joke.

As Ian McKellen wrote at the time, 'the Rose is the real thing.' The restored Globe, wonderful as it is, is a composite copy built on an unrelated location. On the site of The Rose, the diggers found the thigh-bone of a Russian bear, baited in the cruel bloodsports enthusiastically sponsored by the theatre's owners - one of many testaments to the startling closeness between these two Elizabethan mass entertainment industries. The bone is covered in small indentations - tooth-marks from the dogs that were set on it - and one long, shallow gouge, where an assailant was thrown away into the crowd, full of Shakespeare's theatre-going contemporaries, and perhaps even the playwright himself, who would later go on to vividly evoke the feeling of being a baited bear in key scenes in Macbeth and King Lear.

I know all this because I had the bone handed to me, casually produced from a messenger bag by a middle-aged woman manning the postcard desk. The bear-bone is full of visible signs of the world Shakespeare knew, and The Rose is full of such signs. I held one of them in my hands, and felt its weight. These discoveries are still possible. We should save them, while we still can.