£24million Jacobean playhouse set for town with Shakespeare links

The Bard comes home… to Merseyside: Stage is set for £24million Jacobean playhouse in town with intriguing Shakespeare connections

  • Construction work has begun on the Shakespeare North Playhouse in Prescot 
  • Shakespeare’s company are thought to have performed in Knowsley Hall
  • During the late 16th century Prescot had the only indoor Elizabethan theatre 

When you say the name William Shakespeare, what immediately springs to mind?

Stratford-upon-Avon and London’s Globe Theatre, certainly. Few, however, would associate Britain’s most celebrated playwright with a deprived borough in Merseyside – until now.

Last week construction work began on the Shakespeare North Playhouse, a £24million replica Jacobean theatre inspired by the Bard on the site of an old council car park in the small town of Prescot in Knowsley.

During the late 16th century Prescot had the only purpose-built indoor Elizabethan theatre outside the capital. 

A design of what the new Shakespeare North Playhouse, a £24million replica Jacobean theatre, will look like when completed

It was constructed in 1595, probably with the backing of the Earls of Derby, influential aristocrats with strong theatrical connections who lived at nearby Knowsley Hall.

Ferdinando Stanley, the fifth earl, was an early patron of Shakespeare and sponsored his own acting troupe called Lord Strange’s Men, whose members later belonged to Shakespeare’s Globe company.

Lord Strange’s Men performed Shakespeare’s Henry VI at the Rose Theatre in London and the dramatist later wrote Richard III and Titus Andronicus for them. 

The company are thought to have travelled to Knowsley Hall to perform when the London theatres were closed because of the plague.

At this time Prescot, on the edge of Lord Derby’s estate, was a thriving market town. It regularly drew in hundreds from the surrounding area on market days and up to 500 a day to its annual fair.

 No designs of the original Prescot Playhouse have survived so it is inspired by plans drawn up by renowned 17th century architect Inigo Jones for his ‘cockpit-at-court’ theatre (pictured) commissioned for James I

It also had a staggering number of ale houses and a thriving gambling industry, centred on a cockpit for cock fighting. 

The indoor playhouse would have provided entertainment for the town and its visitors.

Elspeth Graham, a professor of early modern literature at Liverpool John Moores University, says that while nobody can be sure whether Shakespeare visited the Prescot Playhouse or Knowsley Hall with Lord Strange’s Men, ‘it’s certain that the worlds of Shakespeare, the people of Prescot and the Earls of Derby, overlapped’.

The trustees of Shakespeare North, the body behind the new theatre, have worked for more than ten years to turn their vision into a reality. 

They have had the support of generous donors, the Treasury, the local Knowsley authority and the Liverpool City Region.

The project has captured the imagination of leading figures from theatre, politics and business with patrons including Vanessa Redgrave, Dame Helen Mirren, Sir Paul McCartney and former Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

A computer image of the outside of the soon-to-be built theatre in the small town of Prescot in Knowsley

Professor Kathy Dacre, who has led the Development Board for the past ten years, said: ‘It is amazing just how many people, who like me grew up on the council estates of Knowsley, have come forward to lend their support to this vision of economic, social and cultural regeneration for Knowsley.’

No designs of the original Prescot Playhouse have survived, so the new version, designed by architect Dr Nick Helm, incorporates the plans drawn up by renowned 17th century architect Inigo Jones for his ‘cockpit-at-court’ theatre commissioned for James I. 

Coincidentally, the Playhouse is being built on the site of Prescot’s original cockpit.

Parts of the replica Elizabethan theatre built for the 1998 Oscar-winning film Shakespeare In Love could also be used in the new Playhouse because Dame Judi Dench, who appeared in the movie and is one of the new venue’s patrons, donated the set to the Shakespeare North Trust in 2009.

Ian Tabbron, interim chief executive for the Shakespeare North Playhouse, says the atmosphere inside will be ‘magical’.

Although it will form the third point of a so-called ‘Bard Triangle’ – with London’s Globe and Stratford’s Royal Shakespeare Company – Mr Tabbron insists it will be very different. 

He says that alongside this authentic candlelit timber stage area, with 350 seats, there will be an exhibition space, education areas and a cafe, ensuring it becomes a ‘people’s theatre’ supported and loved by the community.

A university professor claims that it’s certain that the worlds of Shakespeare (pictured) and the town of Prescott are linked, and he could have even visited the old theatre

So there will be dedicated education spaces, with accessible programmes of learning for all ages from pre-schoolers to pensioners and a Master’s degree in Shakespearean Performance Practice that will attract students to The Playhouse from around the world.

There will also be the chance for Knowsley children to perform each year with the Shakespeare Schools Festival.

Knowsley – regularly named among the poorest boroughs in England and Wales – has become known for ‘terrifying’ statistics on deprivation, teenage pregnancy and poor education, with the borough infamously having no A-level provision at its schools.

But it is hoped that the theatre will boost the economic and social regeneration of the area and is predicted to bring around 110,000 visitors and £5million a year into the local economy.

There is already a renewed buzz around Prescot, with thousands of homes being built and the opening of several hotels and restaurants, including the latest venture by crowd-funding chef Gary Usher, who chose the town for his fifth eaterie last year.

There is a new bar in the high street called The Bard which sells artisan beers named after the plays, the square next to the building site has now been renamed Prospero Place, and even the local bacon butty shop has captured the excitement of Shakespeare North and changed its name to ‘Ham-let’. 

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