The Rose playhouse was built in 1587 by Philip Henslowe, in partnership with John Cholmley, and was the first to be built on London’s Southbank. A few years after it was erected, possibly in the summer of 1591, the building underwent substantial alterations, the payments for which were later recorded by Henslowe in his account book, or ‘Diary,’ in 1592.1 By the early sixteenth century, however, the playhouse had fallen into disuse, and by 1606 it had been demolished.

Part of the building foundations of these two phases of the Rose playhouse—the ‘early’ Rose (Phase I, 1587–1591/2) and the ‘altered’ Rose (Phase II, 1591/2–1606)—have survived. In 1988, following the demolition of Southbridge House, a 1950s office block, part of the site of the Rose becomes available for investigation by English Heritage and the Department of Greater London Archaeology of the Museum of London, now Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA).2 By the time the dig came to an end in 1989, to make way for the erecting of a new office block, Rose Court, archaeologists had uncovered some two-thirds of the Tudor playhouse’s ground plan.3 Because the Rose was built on the south bank of the river Thames, the remains of the chalk-and-brick foundations and the mortar floor of the yard lie in volatile clay substrate. Therefore, the archaeology has had to be preserved in an anaerobic environment as far as possible by submerging it under a layer of sand, cement, and water in the hope of preventing drying or microbial decay, and is monitored regularly.

Fig. 1: a. (left) The current visitor site of the Rose playhouse: the archaeological remains are covered over for preservation; b. (right) red LED lights show the position of the inner and outer walls and the Phase I and Phase II stage fronts

For visitors to the site, the shape of the inner and outer walls and stage in both Phase I and II have been outlined in LED lights (fig. 1), which, along with information boards and a video, help bring to life what remains of Henslowe’s playhouse.

The Rose Revealed Project is the Rose Theatre Trust’s strategic plan for the site going forward, which aims ‘to investigate, preserve, display and interpret the Rose playhouse remains.’  The plan is first to excavate the remains—including the eastern third of the site not uncovered in 1988-89—then to create a permanent visitor attraction, education and performance space.4

In 2013, a grant from the Heritage Lottery allowed the Trust to appoint Kim Stabler, of Stabler Heritage, to manage the initial development of the project. In March 2014, she gave a talk on the project at a symposium at Bristol University—‘Early Modern Theatre Research: Practice, Archaeology, Reconstruction’—in which she outlined some of the challenges in revealing Henslowe’s Rose theatre, not least the challenges in displaying the remains themselves and telling the story of Henslowe’s Rose at the new exhibition. However, there was no mention of using existing or emerging technologies to help reveal the Rose and to tell the fascinating story of Henslowe’s playhouse despite the increasing use of Virtual Reality (VR) modeling and Augmented Reality (AR) in museum curation, cultural management, archiving and research.5

This project, generously funded by De Montfort University with a grant from the Higher Education Innovation Fund (HEIF), aims to explore the possibility of creating a 3D computer model of the Rose playhouseboth Phase I (1587–1591/2) and Phase II (1591/2–1606), set in its immediate environment of Bankside, by using the latest scholarly knowledge combined with 3D Virtual Reality technology and to be

  • designed, based on existing data—historical evidence, academic analysis, and scholarly debate;
  • annotated, to make accessible the evidence, analysis and debate;
  • accessible to visitors of the Rose site, by using ubiquitous and emerging technology (smartphones, for example); and
  • available to visitors of the site as an annotated video flythrough of the models, accompanied by a comprehensive research document.

There have been a number of attempts to depict what the Rose playhouse may have looked like, from 2D representations by the illustrator C. Walter Hodges (see fig. 64 [4.13.1] and fig. 92 [5.8.5]), the theatre designer William Dudley (see fig. 15 [4.2.2]) and the architect Jon Greenfield (see fig. 13 [4.1]);6 to 3D scale models—on a large scale for the film Shakespeare in Love (1998),7 and on a small scale for the Rose playhouse exhibition (built by the Museum of London after C. Walter Hodges—see fig. 93 [5.8.5] and fig. 99 [5.9.5]); and 3D computer models by Ortelia/Joanne Tompkins (2013)8 and Rhys Griffin (2016),9 although they contain clear inaccuracies and limitations.

Creating a model of Henslowe’s Tudor playhouses presents a challenge. With so many unknowns, creating an entirely accurate or authentic model is impossible. In an attempt, at least, to develop something like an accurate model of the early Rose, this project has drawn extensively on

  • evidence from the archaeological data and analysis by the archaeologists involved in the excavation of the Rose remains;
  • evidence from the surviving historical records and documents relating to Philip Henslowe’s playhouse, in particular Henslowe’s own accounts book and contracts for building his playhouses;
  • surviving texts of plays thought to have been written for or known to have been staged at the Rose;
  • information drawn from contemporary accounts, maps, buildings, prints, paintings, and engravings;
  • a review of all published scholarship relating to the Rose Playhouse;
  • the published research by and the opinions of the architects and builders involved in designing and (re)constructing London’s Shakespeare’s Globe; and
  • conversations with the experts (archaeologists, scholars, and academics) whose expertise has shaped our understanding of the playhouses and playgoing in early modern London, who have kindly explored—using VR—and reviewed the 3D models as they developed.

The project has been divided into sections—the playhouse (Phase I and II), Cholmley’s victualling house, and the surrounding environment—with each section further broken down into constituent parts. The available data was then sifted for information regarding each part and the cogency of the evidence evaluated.

The designs for the basic superstructure of the playhouse itself have been based on the CAD models and geo-spatial data of the archaeological remains, so that the position of the load-bearing timber sleeper beams, or ground-cills, and uprights rest on the known positions of the subterranean foundation piles. The temptation in constructing a replica of a polygonal playhouse is to make each side and bay equal and the overall shape symmetrical, but the archaeology confirms that Henslowe’s playhouse was more idiosyncratic and a-symmetrical, which the models reflect for both Phase I and II. Whilst for ease it is tempting simply to build the computer models on a flat plane, we know the inner yard for each phase of the playhouse sloped to varying degrees and that the site it was constructed on was uneven. To reflect the known topography of the site, the models have been built according to the relative heights of the ground taken from the archaeological context sheets.

The models of the playhouse have been situated within the environment of sixteenth-century bankside, created using contemporary maps and drawings of the borough of Southwark and accounts of the roads, fields, ditches, and alleyways, and inhabitants in order to plot the possible position of buildings. Lastly, data from records such as the records of the Surrey and Kent Commission of Sewers have allowed inclusion of flora known to be situated near to the playhouse.

Where there are gaps in the evidence and scholarship relating to the Rose playhouse, these must be filled in, evidence has been sought from examples of other Tudor playhouses or non-theatre buildings, and from the reconstructed Shakespeare’s Globe in London. Beyond the available evidence was added—as C. Walter Hodges notes of his own endeavours at Tudor playhouse reconstruction—‘conjecture, invention, inspiration, guesswork or art of some kind,’ as well as deductions, assumptions, and presumptions. The archaeology and extant historical sources provide only so much information and often say little about the true nature of the superstructure above ground, so the design ‘will of course depend for its effectiveness upon the competence and personality of the artist, and is bound to contain, whether it shows or not, mistakes.’10

What this reconstruction of Henslowe’s playhouse does, which others do not, is make transparent to the viewer the choices made in designing each part through a methodical discussion, analysis, and evaluation of the available evidence, and to make clear where what is being witnessed is conjecture, invention, inspiration, or guesswork.

So why bother? This creation of a new model of the Rose playhouse in both its phases of construction has prompted a timely evaluation of the past thirty years of scholarship regarding Henslowe’s playhouse and proposes a new analysis of the evidence. The creation of a 3D computer model of the Rose, in particular, enhances ability to test the relationships between the archaeology and the architecture; explore the impact of sightlines on the audience’s experience of using the building as a theatre; consider how the mechanics of Rose stagecraft may have worked in practice; understand lighting conditions inside the theatre; and evaluate how the social, performative, and operational dynamics of the space may have functioned.11

Virtual Reality (VR) technology is becoming ever more accessible and becoming gradually more prolific. From full immersion (VR) to Augmented Reality (AR),computer-generated imagery is increasingly being used by museums and heritage sites to enhance understanding—for example, by showing ruined buildings as they once would have looked, bringing skeletons of prehistoric creatures to life, or adding paint effects to white marble statues to demonstrate how they would once have been seen—allowing curators of material cultural to add information, facilitate shared experience, encourage interaction and create unique user experiences. The increasing desire and ability to make use of such technology has been facilitated by decreasing costs partnered with the rapid increase in smartphone ownership and, more recently, availability of VR headsets. Interest in VR and AR has been spurred on by new generation gaming, use in smartphone apps, and increasingly its use in teaching and learning environments. This popularity in, and even expectation of, VR and AR is forcing curators of museums and heritage sites to incorporate these technologies into the visitor experience. All indications are that this expectation will become more anticipated if and as such technologies become more ubiquitous and habitual.

The 360° panoramas given throughout have also been provided in the Appendix in mono and stereo (3D) format, which can be downloaded for use with VR headsets—for example Google Cardboard, an inexpensive way to transform any smartphone into a virtual reality device—to provide an immersive experience of the models by readers or visitors to the site of the Rose playhouse.  Making the design choices that went into building the models transparent will help to educate the user both of their usefulness in learning about the playhouse and the current extent of our knowledge, but also their limitations and the current parameters of what is known.

The current scope of this project can be extended. The models here are singular and static. Using VR, it would be possible to give viewers multiple options to view different configurations where the evidence is uncertain and the possibilities more extensive—for example, the option to view the addition of an external staircase, or to see what the building was like with only two tiers of spectator galleries, or to alter the interior decoration. Further options would be to allow the viewer to move freely within the model—both the playhouse but also the surrounding environs—so they can explore it themselves on a screen or by using a VR headset. Or to allow users to view in virtual 3D the many objects that were unearthed in the excavation, to see where they lay in the site, and to learn more about each item, bypassing the inconvenience of applying to the Museum of London and London Archaeological Archive and Research Centre (LAARC) to visit and to view the artefacts, many of which are not on public display.

Use of AR also makes it possible to overlay the models of the playhouse in real time on to images of the real world to show the relationship of the superstructure to the  present exhibit space (at the time of writing the archaeological remains lie hidden to aid preservation) or, should the remains be re-excavated and displayed, to the archaeology. If the re-excavated remains need subsequently to be re-buried for conservation, scanning them to create a virtual replica would allow the archaeology to remain available.

The model of the Rose here has been designed using Unreal Engine, primarily employed by gaming developers, which can effectively be deployed with mobile technologies and utilizing inbuilt features such as touch screen, audio, and visual display, and GPS location tracking. For example, the visitor can explore the models on a handheld device (by moving through them) and, when prompted, be invited to access websites for more information, explore original documents pertaining to Henslowe’s playhouse, watch video and listen to audio. A visit to the remains of the Rose can be disorientating, housed as they are in the basement of the office block above, so the visitor might view the models of the playhouse—whether by handheld device, Google Cardboard, or headset—orientated to match the real world to better understand the relationship between the playhouse and their modern-day environs. The current reconstructed Globe playhouse has been built someway from the actual remains of Shakespeare’s theatre, which was originally located just across the street from the Rose. Use of VR or AR could allow the visitor to the site of the Rose to understand better the close proximity of, and competitive relationship between, the two theatres after 1599, which ultimately contributed to the demise of Henslowe’s theatre by 1606. The possibilities of adding value through use of VR and AR are many.12

It is hoped that this Proof of Principle project will inspire the Rose Theatre Trust to employ current and emerging VR/AR technology to develop a virtual exhibition that can map onto the current and future exhibition spaces to help tell the fascinating story of Henslowe’s playhouse. The project hopes also to support the Trust’s strategic aim of educational outreach by developing a virtual Rose and an accompanying research document that make the site and its story accessible and available. Despite the limitations of creating a singular model of the Rose in its two phases of construction, it is hoped the project will invite inspection, criticism, and discussion. Necessary speculation, discrepancies or differences of opinion serve to enrich the current debate and inspire critical questioning, which has value.

The aim of this document, which accompanies annotated video fly-throughs (see sections 4 and 5, and the Appendix) and 360° panoramas of the models of Henslowe’s playhouse throughout, is to set out the research used to underpin the choices made in the design of each element of the models of the Rose as it might have been in 1590 (Phase I) and in 1595 (Phase II). The playhouse has been set in its immediate environment in the borough of Southwark, and this document also sets out the research that has fed into the modeling of the plot of land on which Henslowe’s Rose was built, Cholmley’s victualling house, and the immediate topography of late sixteenth-century Bankside.


[1] The costs for the alterations Henslowe made to his playhouse are recorded in his accounts dated 1592, possibly in time for Lord Strange’s Men to move into the playhouse and open at the Rose that February. However, Neil Carson thinks that the work itself was completed before this time—‘The receipts are for large bills which were probably presented some months after the work was completed’—and indicates that these match other expenses that have ‘the appearance of an account transcribed from other sources’ (Neil Carson, A Companion to Henslowe’s Diary (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 15). Picking up on this, Manley and MacLean speculate that the renovations may have taken place ‘as much as a year earlier, in 1590/91, during the period when Strange’s Men were first forming their alliance with Alleyn … But since circumstances suggest that Strange’s Men had occupied the Rose as early as 1590 and that they returned there in 1591, there is every likelihood that Henslowe’s alterations to the playhouse were a result of the company’s influence’ (Lawrence Manley and Sally-Beth MacLean, Lord Strange’s Men and their Plays (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014), 62.)

[2] Formerly Museum of London Archaeological Service (MoLAS).

[3] For a history of the Rose playhouse in the late sixteenth century, and the subsequent story of the archaeological dig in 1989 and the campaign to save and preserve the site, see Christine Eccles, The Rose Theatre (London: Nick Hern Books, 1990).

[4] See Helm Architecture, ‘The Rose Revealed’ whose design objective was ‘to preserve and commemorate the site of the monument and to give access to all for learning, which will be directly and actively identified with Heritage displays;’ and, in the future, ‘to add to the concept of the Visitor Centre by introducing glass floor elements’ so that visitors can see the remains.

[5] For example, see Joanne Tompkins and Matthew Delbridge, ‘Using Virtual Reality Modelling In Cultural Management, Archiving And Research,’ in EVA London 2009: Electronic Visualisation and the Arts. Conference Proceedings, ed. Alan Seal, Suzanne Keene, and Jonathan Bowen (London: British Computing Society (July, 2009)), 260–69.

[6] See Jon Greenfield and Andrew Gurr, ‘The Rose Theatre, London: the state of knowledge and what we still need to know,’ Antiquity 78: 300 (June 2004), 335 and 339; and Jon Greenfield, ‘Reconstructing the Rose: Development of the Playhouse Building between 1587 and 1592,’ Shakespeare Survey 60, ed. Peter Holland, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 25–26. Greenfield constructs the southernmost bays with an extended flat frontage based on early measurements that were later corrected (Julian Bowsher and Pat Miller, The Rose and the Globe: Playhouses of Shakespeare’s Bankside, Southwark: Excavations 1988–90 (Museum of London Archaeology: Monograph 48, 2009), 110); see 4.3.

[7] The interior set for the Rose in the film appears to depict the later playhouse, with pillars rising from the tapered stage. The model locates ingresses to the lower gallery where the archaeology suggests these may have been (see 4.6), although the main entrance is at ground level at odds with the natural typography of the original playhouse (see 4.5.2). The interior is relatively drab with decoration to the painted frons only [see 4.10], which has carved relief around the doors, plain curtains on poles able to be pulled in front of both flanking doors and the central discovery space, and a gold wash on the vastly oversized pillars [see 5.8.4]. In contrast, the depiction of the Curtain is more elaborately decorated with red pillars painted to resemble marble and a more highly decorated frons.

[8] ‘Recreation of the Rose Theatre,’ Ortelia (2013) with Prof. Joanne Tompkins, University of Queensland. Their reconstruction appears to be based on Greenfield’s designs for Phase I (see fig. 13 [4.1]). The model is constructed on a flat plane, ignoring the impact of relative grounds heights including the raked yard (see 4.5). Henslowe’s victualling house appears to be constructed without reference to the archaeological remains (see 6.1).

[9] Rhys Griffin (2016) has developed a model of the Rose in association with ‘The Lost Valley of London’ and The Rose Playhouse for use in a television programme exploring ‘Shakespeare’s Secret Playhouse’.Likewise, the model is constructed on a flat plane, thus removing the impact of the relative ground heights on the construction of the foundation walls supporting the timber superstructure.

[10] C. Walter Hodges, ‘What is possible: The Art and Science of Mistakes,’ in New Issues in the Reconstruction of Shakespeare’s Theatre, ed. F. J. Hildy (New York: Peter Lang Publ., 1990), 44.

[11] Ortelia, with Professor Joanne Tompkins, pioneered the use of 3D modelling of the Rose to test accurate reflections of good and bad weather conditions in a London summer, by using advanced real-time lighting and shadowing techniques. The model has been used ‘to explore the validity of the proposed reconstruction scenarios as well as explore the way in which this space may have been used to present theatre.’ See Joanne Tompkins, ‘Making the invisible visible: virtual stage props and Christopher Marlowe’s Dr Faustus,’ in Performing objects and theatrical things, eds. M. Schweitzer and J. Zerdy (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 161–72; and Joanne Tompkins and Lazaros Kastanis, ‘Staging supernatural creatures in a computer-based visualisation of London’s sixteenth-century Rose Theatre,’ International Journal of Performance Arts and Digital Media 13:1 (2017), 4–20.

[12] For further information on use of AR and VR in museums and cultural heritage, see: Bob Fisher, et al., Virtual and Augmented Architecture (Springer, 2001); Gérard Subsol, et al. Virtual Storytelling. Using Virtual Reality Technologies for Storytelling (Springer, 2005); Marinos Ioannides, et al. Mixed Reality and Gamification for Cultural Heritage (Springer, 2017); Mihai Duguleană et al, VR Technologies in Cultural Heritage (Springer, 2018).