Merseyside’s new Shakespeare theatre opens by celebrating builders and footballers | Theatre

A new Shakespearean theater is to open in Merseyside this summer with a ceremony that celebrates “local heroes” including the builders who constructed it.

The £ 30m Shakespeare North Playhouse in Prescot, Knowsley, has a 470-seat theater, the Cockpit, modeled on Inigo Jones’s cockpit-in-court design in 17th-century London. The site also has an outdoor performance garden, funded by Liverpudlian comedian Ken Dodd’s charitable foundation, and a small studio theater, as well as exhibition and educational facilities.

A weekend of free activities will commence on 15 July with an event created with Slung Low theater company entitled All the Joy That You Can Wish, which will feature the players of supporter-owned local football team Prescot Cables as well as the builders from the Kier group who are putting the finishing touches to the venue. Onlookers will be invited to gather at the new Prospero Place outside the theater 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.

Cockpit construction… inside the Shakespeare North Playhouse opening on 15 July. Photograph: Beccy Lane PositiveImage Photography

Local heroes will appear on the Cockpit stage too, with screenwriter Jimmy McGovern and comedian Johnny Vegas performing solo shows later in the month. Vegas said the new theater 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, theater, everything is for all of us and that’s what that space does, it reminds us of that. ” The site is anticipated to attract 140,000 visitors a year and Vegas said that it would be “monumental” for the region. Max Steinberg, chair of the Shakespeare North Trust, told the Guardian last summer that bars and restaurants, many of them Shakespeare-themed, were 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 Newcastle’s Northern Stage and the company Not Too Tame which is run by Warrington-born Jimmy Fairhurst, a rugby Super League player turned actor. This version of Shakespeare’s fantastical 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.

Teenagers on a night out… A Midsummer Night's Dream will be the first Shakespeare production at the new theater.
Teenagers on a night out… A Midsummer Night’s Dream will be the first Shakespeare production at the new theater

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.

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