It is unknown whether William Shakespeare ever passed through Holloway in his lifetime, but his literary presence was felt strongly in the area in 1976, when the St. George’s Theatre was opened at the junction of Tufnell Park Road and Carleton Road.
The theatre was housed in the former St. George’s Church, designed by George Trufitt in 1867. The church is still architecturally interesting, with a large circular central section and a separate bell tower; in 1976, it was ideal as a venue for theatre-in-the-round and with similar proportions to Shakespeare’s original Globe Theatre on Bankside. It was also well-placed logistically for school groups – although the work done by the education departments at the Royal Shakespeare Company, the National Theatre and the Old Vic was magnificent, ticket prices were higher and there was the additional headache of transport. St. George’s would do away with these problems.
St. George’s was the brainchild of the actor George Murcell and his actress wife Elvi Hale. Both had considerable repertory theatre and stage experience. Murcell, in particular, wished to make Shakespearean texts accessible while refusing to abridge them and performances were to be enjoyable for everyone. School and community groups were actively encouraged and the after-performance workshops were always a great success. The list of Murcell’s supporters and acting company reads like a “Who’s Who” of 1976 – Christopher Plummer, Paul Scofield, Peter Sellars, Alan Badel, Bernard Hepton, Lynn Farleigh, John and Peter McEnery and Rosemary Leach. Eric Porter (RSC and Soames Forsyte in the BBC production of “The Forsyte Saga”) was one of the board members and wrote “He (Murcell) has created a beautiful theatre out of an old circular church…and it is a joy to behold and play in it. It is one of the remarkable theatrical achievements of our time….”.
The opening performance at St. George’s took place on 23rd April 1976 – it was no accident that it was St. George’s Day and Shakespeare’s birthday. Over the years, productions included “As You Like It”, “The Winter’s Tale”, “Richard II”, “Richard III”, “Twelfth Night”, “Romeo and Juliet”, to name but a few.
Murcell used the bell tower as offices and dressing-rooms were housed in temporary portakabins behind the buildings. The theatre was utilitarian and made use of wooden pews, a thrust stage that was built out of the church’s altar, and a sound and lighting system that was highly effective. The seating capacity was 400. The foyer consisted of a café and bar where live jazz sessions took place on a Sunday and where George Murcell was a regular band member.
St. George’s Theatre closed in 1989. Attention was diverted away from Holloway with the discovery of the Rose Theatre on Bankside in that year and active promotion of a new Globe Theatre by the actor/director Sam Wanamaker. George Murcell died in 1998; his son, Jamie, briefly attempted to revive St. George’s as a theatrical space, but was unsuccessful. The building is now a church and conference centre known as “The Rock Tower” or “The House on the Rock.”
For more information, please contact the author Jenny Watson-Bore.
Sources used: Arthur Lloyd – the Music Hall and Theatre History site. www.arthurlloyd.co.uk
John Salmon / St George, Tufnell Park Road, Tufnell Park, London N7 / CC BY-SA 2.0
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