A new Shakespeare theatre is to open in Merseyside tomorrow with a ceremony that celebrates ‘local heroes’ including the builders who constructed it.
The £30m Shakespeare North Playhouse will boast an al fresco performance garden, paid for by by Scouse comedian Ken Dodd’s charity foundation, and a small studio theatre, as well as exhibition and educational facilities. Situated in Prescot, Knowsley, the Shakespeare North will feature a 470-seat theatre, named ‘the Cockpit’, modelled on Inigo Jones’s cockpit-in-court design in 17th-century London.
A weekend of free activities will begin on 15 July with Slung Low theatre company performing All the Joy That You Can Wish, which will stage the players of supporter-owned local football team Prescot Cables as well as the builders putting the finishing touches to the venue. Spectators will be invited to gather at the new Prospero Place outside the theatre and join in a ceremony to “summon the muses” to Knowsley, which is also the Liverpool City Region Borough of Culture for 2022. The weekend continues with performances curated by Prescot-born playwright and actor Ashleigh Nugent.
Famous local faces will appear on the Cockpit stage too, with screenwriter Jimmy McGovern and comedian Johnny Vegas performing solo shows. Vegas said the new theatre was both stunning and intimate: “It doesn’t feel like there’s a cheap seat in the house and that’s beautiful. You walk in there and you feel like we’ve taken culture back. Culture, art, creativity, theatre, everything is for all of us and that’s what that space does, it reminds us of that.”
The site is expected to attract 140,000 visitors a year, something Vegas has said will be “monumental” for the region. Max Steinberg, chair of the Shakespeare North Trust, has already noticed that bars and restaurants, many of them Shakespeare-themed, are already springing up nearby. “This is not Field of Dreams, a case of build it and they will come,” said Steinberg. “We are building and they have already come.”
In September, the playhouse will stage work by three young winners of a nationwide playwriting competition. It will then put on its first Shakespeare production, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, co-produced with company Not Too Tame which is run by Warrington-born Jimmy Fairhurst, a rugby Super League player turned actor. This version of Shakespeare’s comedy explores class struggle and draws on the raucous energy of teenagers on a night out. The play has a local connection too: it has been claimed that it was written for the marriage of William Stanley, sixth earl of Derby (whose family seat is Knowsley Hall), and Elizabeth de Vere.
Laura Collier, creative director at the venue, said the opening season was “a statement of intent in terms of our ambition for the venue and our engagement with the local community and audiences in the years ahead”. Shakespeare North Playhouse has been built during the pandemic with public funds and donations, including £12.2m from Knowsley council, £10.5m from the Liverpool city region combined authority and £3m from the government’s Covid-19 culture recovery fund.