Shakespeare North Playhouse review – a wooden O for the north

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The Guardian

It’s unlikely, and the result of an intricate and roundabout chain of connections, but it’s there. In the former watch-making town of Prescot, Merseyside, just outside the city of Liverpool, stands a brand new replica of a royal theatre from the time of Shakespeare, a galleried eight-sided volume of sturdy raw oak. It is roofed, unlike well-known Shakespearean theatres such as the Globe or the Rose, and comes with a deep blue calico ceiling that can be installed or removed as desired. Descending brass chandeliers enable, if wanted, candlelit performances.

The Shakespeare North Playhouse, as it is called, is based on the Cockpit-in-Court, first built around 1533 for Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn near where 10 Downing Street now stands, as part of what was then Whitehall Palace. It was a place for royal entertainment – first cockfights, and from 1607 and probably earlier, plays, including Shakespeare’s. Around 1629, some time after Shakespeare’s death, Charles I had it made into a permanent theatre to the designs of the pioneer of English renaissance architecture Inigo Jones. It was destroyed in the 1670s.

The Prescot incarnation is the result of the work of many, including a quarter century of persistence by its architect, Nick Helm. In the late 90s he conceived an idea, with the academic Richard Wilson and the director David Thacker, of creating a Shakespeare theatre in the grounds of Hoghton Tower, a fortified manor house in another part of Lancashire, where the playwright may have spent some of his teenage years.

‘A bit mid-century Scandinavian’: an aerial view of the theatre. Photograph: Steve Samosa

A trust was set up, but the Hoghton plan, as Helm puts it, “ran out of steam”. The trust then alighted on Prescot, on the basis that it had, in the 1590s, what may have been the country’s first purpose-built indoor theatre. The town is also on the edge of the estate of the theatre-loving Elizabethans – and patrons of Shakespeare – the 5th and 6th Earls of Derby. Wilson and Helm decided that the new auditorium should be a replica, but as there’s little evidence as to what Prescot’s old theatre looked like, they chose the better-documented Cockpit-in-Court as their model.

They pursued their idea, overcoming knockbacks such as a failed 2007 lottery bid, and winning backing from an eclectic and galactic array of supporters and backers: Dermot Coleman, who is a locally born investment manager; Kathy Dacre, professor of drama studies and wife of the Daily Mail editor Paul; the metropolitan borough of Knowsley, in which Prescot stands; the Ken Dodd Charitable Foundation. Paul McCartney, Judi Dench, Kim Cattrall, Cherie Blair and Vanessa Redgrave voiced their support. George Osborne sent £5m in the theatre’s direction in his last budget as chancellor of the exchequer, and funders of the completed £38m project include Liverpool City Region Combined Authority, and private foundations. It was hoped that the theatre would help stimulate regeneration, £200m of which is coming to pass.

And so it at last stands, designed by Helm in partnership with the architects Austin-Smith:Lord and the engineers Arup, just across from Prescot’s Grade I-listed red sandstone parish church and a former Blockbuster video store. The exterior of the theatre doesn’t give much clue to the inside, being a handsome exercise in abstract modernism, a bit mid-century Scandinavian, perhaps, with a rhythm of brick fins, tall and oblique, rising from a low horizontal base. The foyers continue in a similar style, brick, concrete and timber, plain and spacious. It is only when you rise up some wooden stairs from the ground floor that you find yourself in bottom of the oak octagon.

The interior of the 470-seat auditorium is based on drawings of the old Cockpit by Inigo Jones’s pupil John Webb. These give quite a clear idea of the plan, which has been recreated. They show in particular detail the scaenae frons, or backdrop – an ornate affair of pillars and niches and scrolls, of openings and balconies for appearing and disappearing. A new version of this, which can be inserted or removed to suit different productions, is under construction, but due to its complexity it won’t be ready until January.

A sculpture of Titania, part of a heritage trail around the town. Photograph: Kier

As Webb’s drawings don’t describe every detail, there has also been a certain amount of guesswork. An upper gallery has been installed whose existence was likely but not certain. It’s probable that the interior, being designed for kings and queens, was decorated and splendid, and it’s known that some of Charles I’s collection of Titian paintings were displayed there. But, except on the scaenae frons, we have little idea what the ornament would have been, so Helm relies instead on the beauty of unadorned wood, erected by the timber frame specialists McCurdy & Co, who built the reconstructed Shakespeare’s Globe in London. The resulting aesthetic perhaps reflects the taste of a modern theatregoer more than that of a 17th-century monarch.

Other modifications of history include the technical equipment of a modern theatre. Various stage configurations are possible, both frontal and in-the-round, and it has to serve performances beyond the comprehension of either Inigo Jones or the Bard. Whereas Helm envisaged a place dedicated to the study and performance of Shakespeare, the theatre’s creative team have put together an opening programme – the first night was last Friday – that combines A Midsummer Night’s Dream with the comedian Johnny Vegas and Cracker, Hillsborough and Time screenwriter Jimmy McGovern. There’s also, back outside the building, a Sir Ken Dodd Performance Garden, with a bank of granite seating into which are carved quotations both from the great William Shakespeare and the almost-as-great Liverpudlian comedian.

A boss on the interior beams. Photograph: Kier

It’s a hybrid of the authentic and the improvised, in other words, of the scholarly and the popular and of ancient and modern. Quite a lot of things about it don’t quite join up – the line of connection from Prescot’s 1590 theatre to the reconstruction of the Cockpit is a bit stretched, and the theatre now presented, being substantially based on Jones’s remodelling, is not precisely Shakespearean. Sculptures of Titania, Yorick and Henry VI’s crown, part of a heritage trail around the town, introduce yet another flavour to what is already a confusing cultural brew. It will take quite a lot of work on the part of directors and producers, one suspects, to make sense of the range of events proposed in this very particular space.

But there’s something powerful about the wooden O at the centre, with the intimacy and intensity of the galleries looking down on the stage. If it’s not exactly what Shakespearean audiences and performers would have known, you still get some sense of their experiences. The oak frame, substantial and hewn, holding the energy of recently living trees, is magnificent. The theatre has the force of a curiosity: the sheer fact that this idea has been pursued so persistently gives Prescot something that no other British town has. Also, I doubt if Johnny Vegas has ever played a venue like this, and I’d like to see him do it.

July 17, 2022 at 03:39PM Rowan Moore

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