Planning permission has been granted for a new £19 million Shakespeare theatre for Prescot, Knowsley, which will have education at its heart.
LJMU will be validating a one-year postgraduate programme at Shakespeare North; a 350-seat replica Shakespearean theatre and education hub, which will be situated in the centre of Prescot.
Prescot has been selected as the location of the ambitious project because research by LJMU’s Professor Elspeth Graham, who is Director of Shakespeare North Trust, shows it was the only English town outside of London known to have had a freestanding, purpose-built indoor playhouse in the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras. Shakespeare is also thought to have belonged to a troupe of actors who performed there.
There is clear documentary evidence of the existence of the theatre in the 1590s to 1600s, of who built it, and of the dimensions of the site on which it was built. It is probable that the theatre was built in Prescot because, with an annual fair attracting 1,000 people, a cockpit and a disproportionately large number of alehouses, it was more than likely that it was an entertainment hub for the region.
Prescot also borders Knowsley Hall and Estate, which is one of the major residences of the Stanleys - the Earls of Derby - the greatest Elizabethan magnates in the North West and major theatrical patrons. The fourth Earl of Derby's eldest son, Lord Strange, had a theatre company called Strange’s Men, of which Shakespeare was almost certainly a member. Strange's Men performed Titus Andronicus at The Rose Theatre in London and the company was the precursor to Lord Chamberlain's Men - Shakespeare's Globe company in the 1590s. The Folio edition of Titus Andronicus specifically notes that the play had also been performed for 'the Earle of Darbie.'
There is also evidence of Knowsley in Shakespeare’s plays themselves. The Stanleys are prominent in Shakespeare's history plays, there is reference to a park reminiscent of Knowsley Park in the early play, Love's Labour's Lost, and there is the possibility that A Midsummer Night's Dream was written to celebrate the marriage of William Stanley to Elizabeth de Vere at Greenwich Palace in 1595.
This all suggests that, as a young man, Shakespeare spent time in Knowsley Hall and Estate.
Professor Graham commented: “It’s absolutely fantastic news that planning permission was granted, and it’s incredibly exciting. It was a really emotional moment when, after all of these years of people's generosity and support and hard work, it finally went through the planning permission process.
"The conventional Shakespeare story has always been quite London focused but we now know there were lots of performances going on all over the country and that we had here in Prescot the only known purpose-built theatre Elizabethan outside of London, so it does have an impact on original theories about Shakespeare.
“Actors in particular are really biting our hands off to come and perform at the new theatre because it is going to involve a reproduction of a Jacobean theatre. That’s never been done anywhere else before and so it’s a very new kind of stage and theatre – I think there will be some big name people involved.”
Professor Graham was also interviewed on BBC Radio Merseyside.
More about the vision for Shakespeare North can be found on the website.