Shakespeare North Playhouse is a new theatre in Prescot, a small town nine miles east of Liverpool whose main distinguishing feature (in my mind, at least) is that I went to college there. Not any more. Prescot is now home to a magnificent new timber-framed theatre that seats 470 people in the round, and you’re so close you can touch the actors. And they can touch you. More of that anon. But what is it doing in Prescot? More of that anon, too.
New theatre buildings can be shockers. When it opened, the much lauded Leicester Curve had no stage door so actors had to walk through the foyer to sign in, the offices were open plan meaning the audience could wander round in the interval, and the scenery exit for the studio was across the main stage so anyone performing there had to wait for the main stage to finish before getting their set out.
This building is shocking too, but in the opposite way. Front of house is exceedingly modern, and outside there is the Sir Ken Dodd Performance Garden, an open air auditorium which seats about 100, and looks like it will be great fun. The staff seem to be entirely local, and very friendly. But the auditorium is where it really shines. The smell of the wood hits you as walk in, and then you see how tiny it is. Completely in the round and on three levels, it’s made entirely from wood, not a metal fixing in sight, and there isn’t a bad seat in the house. It’s based on a 16th century ‘cockpit’ design by Inigo Jones, and you get a real sense of what it must have been like to visit the theatre in those days.
The production chosen to open the building, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is a fine match. It’s a complete hoot. Utterly irreverent, with lots of swearing and a joyful mix of modern and Shakespearean language, it’s extremely funny, fairly political, and extremely accessible. Which must have been how Shakespeare’s contemporaries found the Dream when they first saw it.
A co-production between the theatre, Northern Stage and Not Too Tame, the latter being a Warrington-based theatre company dedicated to making a ‘great night out’ for those who feel theatre isn’t for them, the show is directed by Matthew Dunster who was associate director at Shakespeare’s Globe and Manchester’s Royal Exchange, so knows this kind of stage well. And it shows. The actors use the space, and the space around, above and even the foyer. And beware of the front row, they co-opted a member of the audience, Brian, to be one of the rude mechanicals. Brian was also hilarious. I’ll have to go back to make sure he wasn’t a plant.
Apart from the language, the show breaks boundaries in other ways. Oberon, King of the Fairies, is often played by the same actor who plays Theseus, King of Athens; and Titania, Oberon’s Queen, doubles as Hippolyta, whose imminent wedding to Theseus is the cause of the actions that start the play. Here Oberon is played by local boy David Morrissey, who can’t be there so gives it ‘over the phone’, a voice from the sky. It works. As to the marriage of elderly Theseus to the young and vibrant Hippolyta, let’s just say, it doesn’t.
The fight between the lovers in the forest is usually an opportunity for lots of chasing and tumbling and, despite the tiny stage, they manage all of that. Lysander, a lover, is played by deaf actor William Grint, whose signing in BSL is sometimes voiced by one of the other actors and, particularly in the fight, sometimes not. It didn’t matter at all. I certainly understood what he was saying.
Not Too Tame have fulfilled their remit as ‘great night out specialists, producing high octane, heart on sleeve stories that are steeped in working class culture’. I used to teach in a comp in Kirkby, just down the road, and I wish I could have brought my pupils to see this – they would have loved it.
As to what this theatre is doing in Prescot, nearby Knowsley Hall is home to the Earl of Derby, and back in the 1590s the fifth Earl had his own troop of players, Lord Derby’s men, who performed Shakespeare’s plays in a theatre in the town. So when theatre architect Dr Nicholas Helm and Shakespeare specialist Professor Richard Wilson were looking for somewhere to build a theatre to celebrate Shakespeare’s connection with the North, another Shakespeare expert, Professor Elspeth Graham, suggested Prescot.
Helm was all for a new kind of theatre building but Prof Wilson said to him, “Nick, if you are to attract Shakespeare enthusiasts from around the globe, you need to find a replica to be at the heart of your building, not create a radical invention.” And that is what they built. I do hope Prof Wilson is right. He, and everyone else involved, deserves to be. It’s a thrilling venue, and I will certainly be back.
Photos by Patch Dolan
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is at Shakespeare North Playhouse until October 22, 2022. For more information, click here. It then transfers to Northern Stage, October 29-November 12, 2022. Click here for more information.