“What madness is this?” I couldn’t help musing as I wended my way past a superstore towards a £30m Shakespearean venture many hope will put the fairly unprepossessing Merseyside town of Prescot, near Liverpool on the cultural map.
Or perhaps I should say back on the map. During the 1590s, here apparently stood the first free-standing, purpose-built playhouse outside London, until it was converted into housing. In the 1990s, a plan was hatched to build a “replica” Elizabethan theatre as a northern answer to the Globe. The snag: no one knew what the original looked like. So the decision was taken to ape the Cockpit-in-Court, a theatre at Whitehall which presented plays in the Jacobean era and was remodelled in 1629 by Inigo Jones. Based on that design, the 470-seat Shakespeare North Playhouse – boasting an oak-framed, octagonal, two-level main auditorium – aims to attract 140,000 visitors per year.
This may prove optimistic. The Globe benefits undeniably from a flow of Thameside tourists, but the Shakespeare’s Rose pop-ups in Oxford and York – presuming the Bard’s al fresco appeal outside London – flopped badly in 2019. The Rose, Kingston, based on the Elizabethan Rose, survives without having shown a strong raison d'être.
Yet for all the challenges this new-build faces – its candle lighting looks economically essential as opposed to period-faithful – it’s a pleasure to report that it’s a wonder to behold: worth the effort behind the scenes and the logistical slog of our pilgrimage.
Get past the uninspiring municipal façade and functional foyer areas and the space itself radiates magic – intimate and intense, combining a ‘cockpit’ rough and readiness with, thankfully, the mod-cons of comfy seats.
It will need work of the calibre of Matthew Dunster’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream – the Playhouse’s opening production – to secure its reputation. Admittedly, the director’s Shakespeare CV includes the grimly modish Cymbeline rewrite, Imogen – a low point for the Globe during the last regime. Here, though, his disdain for purism accords well with the play’s mischief. He tallies the mechanicals’ bumbling attempt to stage Pyramus and Thisbe with the bubbling anxiety, common to new venues, of being unready. The cast, decimated – we’re told – by a stomach bug, is convened at the start, with roles allocated willy-nilly; the security guard (Jimmy Fairhurst) is entrusted to tackle braggart Bottom the weaver, while Lion is recruited from the stalls.
The expletives and ad-libs will tickle the school parties and the recorded contribution of David Morrissey, voicing Oberon, sprinkles a modicum of star-dust on proceedings. While overlong in the fifth act, where it counts the evening enchants: songs (including The Pretenders’ I Go to Sleep) stir a wistful, otherworldly yearning fit for the tale of unrequited, unreliable love.
There are many unexpected delights – not least deaf actor William Grint’s Lysander, signing and moaning his love, in cryptic rapport with Rebecca Hesketh Smith’s Hermia. But the whole thing is an unexpected pleasure and the climactic use of Here Comes the Sun signals not only deference to Liverpool’s Sixties heyday but a sense of burgeoning possibility ahead.