William Shakespeare: Plans unveiled to recreate Merseyside theatre where Bard debuted iconic plays

In Elizabethan times, the Prescot Playhouse was the only purpose-built indoor theatre outside of London

Nick Clark
Arts Correspondent
Tuesday 15 December 2015 21:52
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The design of Inigo Jones’s Cockpit-in-Court theatre in London, centre, will be replicated for the proposed Prescot Playhouse
The design of Inigo Jones’s Cockpit-in-Court theatre in London, centre, will be replicated for the proposed Prescot Playhouse

It was in Prescot, a small hilltop town near Liverpool, that scholars believe William Shakespeare may have debuted several of his most famous plays. Now plans are afoot to recreate a period theatre in Merseyside to celebrate its often neglected place in the history of the Bard.

In Elizabethan times, the Prescot Playhouse was the only purpose-built indoor theatre outside of London. Built in the 1590s but destroyed in the early 17th century, the exact appearance of this original Shakespearean theatre remains unknown because no plans have survived.

The designs of Inigo Jones’s Whitehall theatre the Cockpit-in-Court, dating back to 1629, will be replicated instead for a new theatre and education centre being built on a council-owned car park near the town’s Jacobean church.

This 21st-century incarnation, which will seat 350 people and could rejuvenate the Knowsley area of Merseyside, is expected to cost between £15m and £19m.

The development – which will create a “Shakespeare Triangle” between the North-west, Stratford and London – comes eight years after an initial attempt by the Shakespeare North Trust to build the theatre stalled over a failure to secure a National Lottery grant.

The trust, which has not yet decided whether to try again for lottery backing, is more confident of success this time because there will be no permanent company and it will receive student fees.

Academics at John Moores University, Liverpool, and historians such as Richard Wilson and David George believe that Shakespeare’s work was staged in Prescot – after one of the acting companies he wrote for, Lord Strange’s Men, left plague-stricken London for the Merseyside area in 1592.

Richard III and Love’s Labour’s Lost both have tributes to the Stanley family, and may have been first performed at the Prescot Playhouse or nearby Knowsley Hall.

“The aim here is to commemorate the significance of Prescot’s history, by creating a Playhouse to a 17th-century design,” George Howarth, Labour MP for Knowsley, said last week. “It would contribute to the regeneration of an area with deep connections to one of the nation’s greatest cultural icons.”

Culture minister Ed Vaizey backed the proposals last week, saying it spoke to his “personal passion to put culture and heritage at the heart of our communities, recreating a historic link with our greatest playwright”.

The new playhouse will be the centre of a university-level programme dedicated to studying Shakespearean performance practice. The project has secured the involvement of Liverpool John Moores University for a one-year MA and a diploma postgraduate programme.

Both the trust and Mr Howarth believe such a project could help boost one of the most deprived parts of the UK. “It is to this landscape that Shakespeare North offers spiritual renewal, economic regeneration and hope,” the trust said.

The plans, which will be submitted on Friday on behalf of the trust, will be “transformational” for the area, according to Kathy Dacre, professor at Rose Bruford College and chair of the trust’s development board.

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