The whole North’s a stage

Shakespeare North Playhouse has been talked about since the early 2000s and now the curtain is finally rising on its first performance

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“I like this place,” says one of William Shakespeare’s characters in the comedy As You Like It, “and willingly could waste my time in it.”

History doesn’t record which particular place inspired these admiring words. But given Shakespeare’s friendship with William Stanley, 6th Earl of Derby, and his likely visits to the latter’s home at Knowsley Hall on Merseyside, it is just possible he considered pleasurably wasting his time in a nearby place called Prescot.

After all, that was where a theatre for Shakespeare’s plays was built during his lifetime. It is probable, therefore, that he would approve of Prescot being chosen as the location for the UK’s newest theatre, the Shakespeare North Playhouse.

The £38m building opens its doors to the public on Friday 15 July with an off-beat outdoor ceremony entitled All The Joy That You Can Wish, for which participants are asked to “prepare for all of the noise, glamour and silliness we can muster”. Among those taking part will be the builders who helped construct the venue. It kicks off a spectacular first season set to include a modern take on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a somewhat eccentric retelling of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, and an evening with St Helens’ comedian Johnny Vegas and Liverpool playwright Jimmy McGovern.

Inside a modern energy-efficient building is the only timber-built ‘cockpit-in-court’ style theatre outside London, inspired by a 16th century structure built for Henry VIII on ground now occupied by the Houses of Parliament. Initially used for cockfighting, it was later redesigned as a theatre for Charles I by the architect Inigo Jones.

With seating for just 450, Shakespeare North has less than half the capacity of both the Royal Shakespeare Theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon and Shakespeare’s Globe theatre in London. However, chief executive Melanie Lewis believes its small size will create something special. “I think it’s very calming, actually. There’s 90 tonnes of oak in there, all traditionally put together with carpentry skills which don’t require nails, screws or glue. It really is a piece of art in its own right.”

Above: the 17th-century style timber Cockpit theatre. Main image: A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the first Shakespeare play the theatre is hosting and co-producing, with Northern Stage and Not Too Tame. Photos: Andrew Brooks/Shakespeare North Playhouse

The idea of a Shakespeare theatre in the North of England was first talked about in the early 2000s but spent years in a sort of ‘to be or not to be’ limbo. Finally, in 2013 the local Knowsley Borough Council kickstarted the project with a grant of over £12m, seeing it as a strategic investment in the area’s future. That helped to galvanise wider interest, and the Liverpool City Region’s metro mayor Steve Rotheram came up with another £10.5m while the Arts Council put in £5m. Additional contributions from charitable foundations and philanthropic donations enabled building work to start in March 2020. Remarkably, the Covid-19 lockdowns which began at the same time did not impact on the work and the project has been completed just a couple of weeks behind schedule.

The development features two other theatre spaces – an outdoor “performance garden” provided by the Sir Ken Dodd Foundation set up in the name of the Liverpudlian comedian who died in 2018, and a small studio theatre for the development of new productions.

“We hope this building will be used from early morning till late at night and we become this real cultural hub for the community in Prescot,” says Lewis. One of its core functions is as an education resource, with the 64 schools in Knowsley taking priority for visits before the invitation is spread to the wider Liverpool region and further afield.

But for the wider theatre-going public, will the Shakespeare North suffer from being located ten miles outside Liverpool? Lewis doesn’t think so.

“We are an hour away from seven million people. We’re two minutes off the M57, which means we’re six minutes from the M62, which means we’re just about 20 minutes from the Liver Building. You can get here from Manchester’s Deansgate in just over 30 minutes, and from Leeds city centre in 75 minutes, so we will be very much the Shakespeare North Playhouse.”

To help introduce audiences to the theatre, a proportion of the tickets for all plays will be available on a ‘Pay What You Decide’ basis, allowing people to pay as little as £3 a seat according to what they think the performance is worth. This will allow, Lewis says, “people to stick their toe in the water, so to speak.”

Visit shakespearenorthplayhouse.co.uk for details of forthcoming productions and booking information 

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