Here comes the Bard!
Prescot braces for the arrival of Shakespeare North: A £38 million white knight
By Jack Walton
The place where I grew up, Broadstairs — a little seaside town in Kent — has a bit of a thing for Charles Dickens. For two decades in the 1800s Dickens would holiday there, and he wrote an essay about it, Our English Watering-Place. It’s a connection, but he liked other places too, and he wasn’t actually from Broadstairs. Nethertheless, Broadstairs has more than a bit of a thing for Charles Dickens.
The town is awash with little blue plaques inscribed with tenuous links to its former resident. Charles Dickens lived here, Charles Dickens lived there. Charles Dickens once rode this helter skelter. Charles Dickens was pissing in this urinal when the plot for Barnaby Rudge popped into his head. So strong is the theme of post-Dickens embellishment that one house, quite humorously, has erected a plaque which simply reads: “Charles Dickens did not live here.”
But it works. The Charles Dickens museum on Broadstairs seafront is forever spilling with bored foreign exchange students, locals have a whale of a time prancing about in their Victorian petticoats and bonnets during the annual ‘Dickens Festival’ and school teachers don’t have to put any effort into devising ideas for school trips. It’s an example of how a town’s cultural identity can be bioengineered into its genetic makeup after the fact. And why should that be a bad thing?
Which brings us to Prescot, Knowsley. Much like Broadstairs and Dickens, Prescot seems to have taken a liking to William Shakespeare. The town (which once upon a time had the only indoor Elizabethan playhouse outside of London) opens up a new one this weekend, Shakespeare North, a £38 million colossus two decades in the making.
The hope: Shakespeare fever will be the force to revive a borough which ranks as the second most deprived in the country. It seems perhaps slightly jarring to the residents. One local business owner called Scott tells me he finds it all “a bit amusing”. Until it was fully explained to him, he “didn’t realise it wasn’t a joke”.
But if a local publican has to rename his Knowsley Pale something like ‘The Bard’s Brew’ in order to justify a £1.80 price hike, will he be that bothered? No, he will not. The Lord Strange café bar which sprung up in 2019, for example, has a giant outdoor mural of the Bard sinking a pint of Krombacher on its outside wall. If it is all a big prank, turning Prescot into a Shakespearian shrine — complete with votive candles (the theatre is creating an impressive candle installation) and metal ornamentation (fourteen miniature statues of creatures that feature in the Witches’ Chant from Macbeth are stationed around the town) — then it’ll be businesses like theirs and Scott’s laughing the hardest.
And what a shrine it is! The building is undeniably beautiful. The main interior — a circular ‘cockpit’ theatre panelled with more than 60 tonnes of English oak — looks stunning, sort of like a multi-story sauna, but in the best way possible. It follows the carpentry methods of Shakespeare’s era — screw-less and glue-less — techniques honed hundreds of years in the past.
The main cockpit is cocooned within an outer shell of modernity: zig-zagged brick and glass. On the day before it opens I’m lucky enough to get a little tour around, as staff rush about fretting over last minute arrangements. All bases seem to have been covered: the central, ‘Wooden O’ theatre might be the star of the piece, but the rest — a studio theatre, educational spaces and an outdoor performance garden — all hold their own in supporting roles.
Prescot has (and I’m sure Prescotians won’t mind my saying so) been something of a ghost town in past years. Strolling up its somewhat sleepy high street offers more than a slight contrast to the last minute hecticness inside the theatre. A big Tesco, Scott tells me, parked at the bottom of the town’s main hill in the place where British Insulated Callender's Cables site used to be, ought to shoulder a portion of the blame. The frankly massive supermarket served to draw residents away from the main town area, precipitating a bleak emptiness.
Big Tesco! Those bastards, hoovering life off a once bustling market town high street and dispersing it like the contents of a giant vacuum sack all over a dreary retail park. How could they?
The first task of Shakespeare North then — geographically and metaphorically — is to provide a counterweight to the downhill drift of Prescot’s life-force. It sits atop the hill, shoulders puffed out above the surrounding buildings, with a kind of swagger that says: ‘move aside Big Tesco, there’s a new sheriff in town’.
The historical connection between the Bard and Prescot dates back to the fifth Earl of Derby, Ferdinando Stanley, who was the patron of a company of players called Strange’s Men. Ferdinando’s family home, Knowsley Hall, is now resided in by the current Earl, Edward Stanley.
Strange’s Men were forced north by the bubonic plague in the late 1500s and took Shakespeare’s plays with them, performing at the Prescot Playhouse, which was situated at the opposite end of Eccleston Street to the new one. That much is true. Then there are the swirling rumours — part of Prescot’s ever-expanding treasure trove of Jacobean lore — that the bard himself performed with that troupe. There’s a lot of nudge and wink allusions to the possibility that this might be true in the media surrounding the theatre. Did Shakespeare himself visit the Earl in Prescot? Hmmm, we couldn’t possibly say.
Others go further, suggesting — with all the credulity of a man, six pints deep, telling you about the time he chinned Tyson Fury in his amateur boxing days — that the Bard might even have trod the boards of Prescot Playhouse. Historians, generally, are less convinced.
Yes, some historians — those snotty-nosed killjoys — point to a lack of evidence, as well as the absence of any surviving documents that might indicate what Prescot’s Playhouse looked like. That’s why the new theatre, at the recommendation of architect Dr Nicholas Helm and Shakespeare scholar Professor Richard Wilson, is actually based on the design of the former Cockpit-in-Court at the Palace in Whitehall.
The Cockpit was the creation of the most famous theatre architect of the Shakespearian era, Inigo Jones, who transformed the original building, which had first been built by Henry VIII. Henry VIII had been using it to stage cock fights, hence the name, but Jones made it into the masterpiece that caught Helm’s imagination.
Originally, he had been keen on avant-garde designs, as he’d been researching new forms for theatre for the 21st century. It was Wilson who told him, whilst standing in the car park that has now become Shakespeare North back in 2006, that it had to be a replica. If they could get it right, that’s what would “elevate the project to a site of global significance,” Helm explains.
He understood what his friend meant. In his words, they needed to create a “magnet” for the town. So there they stood — 16 long years ago — the scholar and the architect, flanked on one side by a beautiful Grade I-listed 1610 red sandstone Jacobean church and on the other by a sorry-looking high street of betting shops and decay, with vision flickering before their eyes: a brand new cockpit-in-court would be the swaggering Cock of the North.
Listening to Helm speak, it’s clear that he is a man of precision. He mentions the details from which they drew knowledge, such as a Spanish doctor who visited the original theatre in 1539 and described it as “a colosseum and an amphitheatre of fine workmanship,” or the subtle differences between the 1630 National Archive records of the theatre and the drawings they had by Inigo Jones. “There were enough holes in the information that you have to conjecture,” Helm explains. “So the final product is finely honed between the needs of the day and historical reality.”
Money came from many sources. The council contributed £18 million, the city region added £12 million to the pot and £5 million came from the Treasury back when George Osbourne was in charge. Then there were private backers, including £700,000 from the Ken Dodd Charitable Foundation, hence Dodd’s quotes decorating the concrete steps of the performance garden.
Would the money be better put directly into the community? “Why shouldn’t these people have access to this type of cultural opportunity?” says Evonne Bixter, Head of Engagement at the Playhouse. Evonne points out that “creativity has been lost a bit in education,” in recent years, especially during the pandemic, and says that the theatre can push back against that change.
There’s a real attentiveness to how the team has struck a balance between creating a site of global importance — somewhere for an international community of Shakespeare enthusiasts to pilgrimage to — and absorbing itself into its immediate surroundings. They’ll implement a pay-as-much-as-you-want scheme for a certain number of tickets to each show, and have a special discount in place for schools. Bixter has already arranged partnerships with 20 schools, most of which are in Knowsley.
Helm describes it as “the most powerful force for regeneration in the country” and pours thanks upon the “outstanding” Knowsley council. Several articles have already been written about the various swanky restaurants and bars popping up in its vicinity, little by little, like the tentative twitching fingers of a reanimated corpse. Many of them take cues for their lodestar, like The Lord Strange or The Bard Micropub.
Might every struggling post-industrial town now find itself frantically leafing through the local duke’s family tree and mapping out an ancestral warpath to multi-million pound cultural salvation? ‘In these hallowed halls once trod the treasured step of the great Horatio Nelson (‘s second cousin twice removed). Now where’s our Maritime Museum?’ Not necessarily. Paul Swinney — Director of Policy and Research for think tank Centre for Cities — wrote in 2017 that “if the aim is to turn around struggling economies [and] increase job opportunities available” then “the evidence suggests that culture-led regeneration is unlikely to do the trick alone”.
At 6:30pm, dress rehearsals for tomorrow’s opening show commence. Producer Josiah Worth explains the plan. A procession of people representing various parts of Prescot’s heritage will march down the high street from the site where the old theatre stood to the new one, accompanied by smoke grenades and music, where they will raise the muses.
Eight different local community groups — such as SHARe Knowsley, who support refugees and asylum seekers and Bryer Road Coffee Morning — will make up the bulk of marchers in the performance, entitled All the Joy that you Can Wish, supported by a troupe of seven actors and musicians. In Josiah’s words they have between them “a kaleidoscope of different lived experiences in the Knowsley borough”. Watching them practise is a slightly surreal experience: like an ancient ritual mapped out in a 21st century town centre. High church and Home Bargains side by side.
“It could easily have been a very us and them vibe,” Josiah explains. “Everyone keeps asking: ‘when’s the official moment where a celebrity comes and cuts the ribbon?’ But we aren’t doing that on purpose. The community groups are opening it because it's for the community and we want to set that tone.”
It would be easy to be cynical, to wonder if there’s a touch of myth-making involved here, but it would be easier still to simply think: who cares? Watching the procession make its way down Eccleston Street is joyous, men sit outside a Wetherspoons and lift their glasses, heads hang from windows, small children point and shout.
Whatever personal grudges I held against the Bard — most of which can be traced back to a gruelling English literature seminar four years ago in which I, put on the spot, painfully hungover and having never made the fourth page of A Winter’s Tale, proceeded to reel off a list of points from a webpage I had opened only to realise I was a week out of sync and we were actually reading Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver's Travels — seem to dissipate in a blitz of silliness and joy.
And this is only the dress rehearsal! If I had them to hand, I might just be reaching for the jerkin and hose myself.