Shakespeare North Playhouse. Credit Andrew Brooks; Shakespeare North Playhouse. Credit Andrew Brooks;

Shakespeare North Playhouse, Prescot, Knowsley

Sparking regeneration with a rediscovered theatre

The Shakespeare North Playhouse forms the final part of the ‘Shakespearean Triangle’, a cultural trail linking London, Stratford-Upon-Avon and Prescot. The playhouse celebrates Shakespeare’s links with Prescot, which was home to his patrons - the Earls of Derby – providing an attractive setting for the new cultural and educational venue in the North of England.

Collaborating with Helm Architecture and Austin-Smith:Lord, Arup’s venue design specialists created a playhouse allowing for the configuration of three uniquely historical replica modes, as well as other flexible configurations for modern theatre, comedy, music and educational events.

The centrepiece of the theatre, the cockpit theatre, is a timber replica of a Shakespearean era playhouse based on surviving plans of one of the earliest known indoor playhouses, the Cockpit-in-Court at the Palace of Whitehall in London. Completing the playhouse is a studio theatre, a performance garden and exhibition centre.

Project Summary

3 authentic stage configurations

500years of history

201demountable timber stage and seating modules

Regneration of town and region

Cultural buildings bring communities together and can be a key economic generator for local regions. Our venue designers regularly work on early masterplanning projects using concepts of cultural sustainability to shape strategies for the provision of arts and culture in cities.

The Shakespeare North project has been a catalyst for regeneration in the town of Prescot, the surrounding borough of Knowsley and the wider Merseyside region. By the mid 2010s the borough was recognised as the second most deprived in England and as a result the new venue was identified as a key component in the government’s ‘Northern Powerhouse’ 2016 budget.

We worked with Knowsley Metropolitan Borough Council, Helm Architecture and Austin-Smith:Lord to develop the theatre brief. Together, we defined a unique building that strikes a balance between authenticity, adaptability and relevance, helping to attract tourism, support practical historical research and provide a welcoming and accessible space for the local community.

We ran consultation workshops with key stakeholders: community arts organisations, national theatre companies, research academics and education partners to ensure that the venue design met their varied needs and provided a distinctive and valued asset in the rich creative context of the wider Liverpool City Region.

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A 16th century theatre fit for 21st century audiences

As a publicly-funded community asset, the Shakespeare North Playhouse needed to be a viable regional theatre capable of hosting touring productions and delivering a vibrant educational programme. Fundamental to our work was balancing these modern-day needs with historical accuracy: defining what it means to be a ‘historically authentic replica’ in terms of theatre architecture and theatre equipment.

Our design not only includes historically-referenced chandeliers for authentic candle-lit performances, but also has embedded modern lighting, sound video, communications and broadcast cabling and equipment which is integrated into the replica architecture. This digital connectivity allows for modern production and broadcast methods and seamless connection of live performances within the building.

Control rooms, equipped with lighting, sound, video and audio description control consoles, provide views of the stage whilst remaining discretely tucked above the historic oak frame. A technical gallery at the same level provides quick access and flexible rigging positions to help staff efficiently prepare productions. A modern technical attic above the theatre houses motorised lighting which can be hidden when not in use.

This incredible centrepiece of a new public realm […] felt like the most exciting thing to happen to culture in years. It is truly beautiful as a space, but the space feels full of people’s dreams and the dreams of those to come. ” Claire McColgan CBE Liverpool Culture Director

In addition to state-of-the-art technical equipment, a set of traditional hemp ‘spot’ lines allow users to run productions using more historically-sympathetic methods. The hemp lines can suspend a set of seven chandeliers and simple flown scenic pieces. Another key historical element, designed based on a description of an account of works from the Inigo Jones 17th century theatre, is a retractable calico ceiling which recreates a night skyscape over the heads of the audience.

The historical records informed our design for a unique toolkit of demountable modular staging and seating for the theatre. These allow the venue to be configured in end-stage, in-the-round and thrust-stage configurations.

The staging and seating units are timber construction, a sustainable and historically-sympathetic construction method which allows the users to adapt pieces for specific productions. This approach mirrors the evolution of the original 16th century building from cockpit to Jacobean playhouse allowing playmakers to recreate original actor / audience relationships or adapt the space to new experimental forms.

The result is a mix of modern state-of-the-art and historically-authentic equipment which allows theatre makers and audiences to interact and play with elements from theatre’s past, present and future.

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Images © Andrew Brooks

Shakespeare North Playhouse. Credit Andrew Brooks Shakespeare North Playhouse. Credit Andrew Brooks