Originally published in LSi May 2023
Old meets new at Shakespeare North Playhouse, the Bard’s new northern home. Rob Halliday reports from Prescot, Merseyside . . .
There’s a certain smell you normally find in building sites, which lingers on for a while even as a building opens and comes to life. It’s equal part plaster, dampness, paint, concrete and the toil of the builders who made the place.
There’s a little bit of that around the edges of the new Shakespeare North Playhouse in Prescot, near Liverpool, in the outer parts of the building that are built using the materials of now - concrete, glass, plaster. But get to the core of the building, open the doors to the auditorium it contains, and it’s different. Look around and there’s a clue as to why: the framework around you is all timber. Not modern, familiar building timber - but oak, from trees that had lived for a hundred years before being harvested to become part of this place. If it doesn’t smell like your normal building site, that’s perhaps because it’s more ancient forest. It smells delicious.
It looks delicious, too. The wood - the ancient wood forming the structure, newer wood forming the seating and stage - is somehow all lighter than it comes across in any photographs.
It is tactile - touch that ancient oak and revel in its feel, enjoy the texture, the grain, even the cracking. That space that wood has built feels intensely focused. Filled with people, you’d imagine them all leaning intently forward, fully engaged in whatever was happening on the stage. Immersed deeply in the show, even though that show wasn’t wrapping them up in the trappings that are now so often added in order to be able to label a production with the new buzzword of immersive.
It’s quite surprising to find all this in this town, once identified as one of the most deprived places in the UK. So, just how did it get here? And who helped put it here?
The instigators of the project, which stretches all the way back to 2004, were Matthew Jordan and Elspeth Graham of Liverpool’s John Moores University.
Graham, a professor of early-modern literature, had heard of and subsequently researched the little known Elizabethan playhouse which existed in Prescot, then a prosperous market town in Lancashire, owned by King’s College Cambridge. The theatre, which Graham describes as the only known freestanding, purpose-built theatre outside London in the Elizabethan period, provided a performance space for companies of players.
It is likely there were connections between the Earls of Derby, long-term theatrical patrons, and the unexpected presence of this theatre. The 5th Earl of Derby, Lord Strange before he inherited his title, also provides a link to Shakespeare. “The Lord Strange’s Men evolved into the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, which became the King’s Men, Shakespeare’s troupe,” explains Ed Elbourne of Arup, the theatre consultant for the project. This unexpected theatrical activity, together with the link to Shakespeare, was interesting enough for Graham and Jordan to establish the Shakespeare North partnership to create a new theatre in Prescot, as part of Knowsley Metropolitan Borough Council’s masterplan to regenerate the town, and of Liverpool’s regional development plans.
The question was, what to build. More academic experts in the field were drawn in to the project, particularly Shakespearian academic Professor Richard Wilson, who had long discussed creating a Northern Shakespeare Centre in the UK, and architect Dr Nicholas Helm, who has long had a special interest in performance spaces.
An obvious choice would have been to re-create that original Prescot Playhouse, but as Ed Elbourne explains: “While there is documentation of that original Prescot Playhouse existing, there are no plans or descriptions.” An alternative might have been to create something entirely new, and this was all subject to intense discussion between all involved. But Nicholas Helm, appointed architect for the project, recalls standing with Professor Wilson in the car park that had become the proposed site in Prescot: “Richard Wilson turned to me and said, ‘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 new invention.’”
One theatre which had long fascinated academics, including Helm who had noticed it during his doctoral research, was a contemporary of that Prescot Playhouse, in which some of the same players might have performed: the Cockpit-in-Court Theatre in London’s Whitehall.
This was created for Henry VIII as his cockfighting arena, but over the years underwent significant transformations including a redesign by Inigo Jones and his student John Webb, as a venue for staging court masques for Charles I. This was, Nicholas Helm notes, “a space that was loved by a lot of people over a long time - Elizabeth I refurbished it in 1580 for the visit of the French Embassy, then James I adapted it for his children.” While there was now no hope of architecturally exploring the original - any remains are beneath what is now 10 Downing Street - it was very well documented.
It therefore became the model for the new theatre for Prescot, a proposal exciting enough that it even caught the attention of George Osborne, then chancellor of the exchequer, who despite being in the middle of his self- proclaimed austerity drive found £5million as part of the government’s Northern Powerhouse plan to sit alongside
£12m from Knowsley Council, £10.5m from the Liverpool Combined Authority and £3.5m from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.And ultimately, it became what has now been built.
Unlike the Globe on London’s South Bank, this building doesn’t present its historical connection to the casual passer-by. From the street, it feels like a clean, elegant, modern construction: brick, expanses of glazing, a concrete floor, designed by architects Austin-Smith:Lord with Helm Architecture and built - with the now-familiar complications of working during COVID - by Kier, who also built the nearby Storyhouse in Chester (see LSi July 2017).
Cut into the side of a hill, it sits behind an old but now abandoned bank building, and a nursery that also carries the name ‘playhouse’ - a use we’d now think of as different from the venue’s, but which is historically connected. The foyers are brightly illuminated by the sun during the day, open and welcoming with the usual amenities of shops, café, bar and digital gallery/exhibition space. It feels like a nice place to be, and certainly the people of Prescot seem to be taking to it.
Behind the scenes, it’s also trying to be an efficient building: front-of-house ventilation is passive, with a vertical slot up to an openable skylight in the café assisting with that. And there are solar panels on the roof to provide electricity during the day, though this is not supported by battery storage.
The interesting part lies at the centre of the site, the rest of the building wrapped around it: a 19m wide, 24m high concrete box, inside which sits the wooden-framed new Cockpit Theatre - a fascinating meeting of theatre of the time of Shakespeare, and theatre of right now.
THE COCKPIT THEATRE
This intersection feels like it was the particular challenge of this project: whether to build a really precise historical recreation of that London Cockpit, perhaps even, as at the Globe’s Wanamaker Playhouse, lit entirely by candles with performer and audience in a shared light. Or whether to try to blend in more modern technology, to give
greater flexibility of use in a venue that would have to earn its place and earn its keep in this town by doing far more than just historically-accurate Shakespearianera stagings - just as it was on the day of my visit, when the stage was set up for a celebrity Q&A talk with video projection behind, something Shakespeare would not have been familiar with!
Part of the role Arup seems to have found itself with on this project was being the adjudicator between the historians, led by Nick Helm as the theatre’s architect, and the theatre’s users on finding that balance. “As we were starting on this project, there was the whole thing around Emma Rice at the Globe, and the question of authenticity and what did that mean,” recalls Arup’s Ed Elbourne. “Our point was that the Globe is in the middle of London; it can rely quite heavily on tourists and school parties, whereas this was in the second most deprived area in England, It has to not only have authenticity to draw people into the region, but also has to work very hard for the local community. That meant a really interesting balance - being able to embed the technical systems so you can do modern styles of staging, but also being able to get right back to a performance lit by candles if you wanted to. The theatre has been built to allow all of those things.”
Once inside the concrete box, the form and even construction would be familiar to a time-traveller from Shakespeare’s era: it’s an eight-sided courtyard with seating on two levels of balconies around the edge and then a lower flat-floored central zone that can combine stage or seating in a variety of configurations. This is the structure built with that hundred-year-old timber, English oak for the 16 main support posts, European oak for other elements, using traditional wood construction techniques - posts and beams, mortise-and-tenon joints, wooden pegs, just as in the 16th century.
The expertise behind this comes from master craftsman Peter McCurdy and the team he leads, who also built the Globe, the Wanamaker and, outside of theatre, specialise in the maintenance and restoration of buildings such as cathedrals - elements of the construction here are based on the lantern octagon above the nave at Ely Cathedral.
This construction is self-supporting, standing free of the concrete box, but quite a challenge to assemble: 60 tonnes of oak in total, with the main posts weighing about a tonne each. Just getting these posts upright involved a spider crane able to fit through the doors into the concrete box, fitted with a hydraulic grab designed for lifting steel beams but modified to clamp onto the timber.
The wood is beautiful, fascinating in its texture, especially in the places where there are cracks or splits as it relaxes in to its new life. “You hear noises from it, hear it popping, as it settles,” explains Dave Woodward, the building’s head of technical and facilities (bringing his experience of 18 years at the Lowry in Salford then spells at the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall and then Stage Electrics to the building), “and sometimes you find splits that weren’t there before. Peter McCurdy tells us this is all normal!” The wood is for the most part untreated, unpainted, unstained apart from a few sections with painted highlights, about which there has been much debate amongst all involved.
Though of another time, in some ways this wooden construction is also a pointer to the future. “The big thing in the building industry in the last 10 years has been about timber construction,”
Elbourne notes, “since it offers both a carbon benefit and a weight benefit over concrete. And a fire benefit, actually, because the timber columns char on the outside and that actually makes them quite resistant to fire - though, of course, with the desire to be able to use candlelight, fire planning was a significant design aspect to the project.”
Unlike some of the more intractable materials used in modern buildings, wood can be worked and refined if necessary: some of the posts have been narrowed in, to improve sightlines from the end seats in each balcony bay. The ongoing debate now, of course, is whether this final form must be carefully preserved, a museum-piece, or whether it is a working space, happy to receive the odd nail or screw as productions require and so evolving over time as most theatres do. The rule at the moment is that there are no rules . . .
The central space begins as an empty pit, with two staircases that drop through the floor to allow entrances below. Plans have been made for the creation of an end stage with two banks of angled seating, an in-the-round stage with two rows of seating around it, or a three-sided deep thrust stage - though of course, as is the nature of theatre, ultimately anything can be achieved.
A kit of parts exists to allow these planned permutations - 201 demountable timber decking and seating modules along with trap and stair modules - the result of a design collaboration between the architects led by Rhiannon Davies from Austin-Smith:Lord, Arup and technical supplier Adlib, which happens to be based just down the road in Knowsley. This led to the creation of a wooden decking system that, a bit like the theatre as a whole, is simultaneously modern - built in Adlib’s in-house carpentry workshop using CNC machines - and a throwback to the traditional gate-leg folding wooden rostra of old.
“We looked at standard Steeldeck or Hoac-style systems,” Elbourne explains, “but ultimately we wanted that sense of authenticity, the sound as you walk on the timber. We also knew that the timber frame will move and even shrink over time, so we wanted a system that could be adapted to deal with that. And, of course, you just want to be able to take pieces out and adapt them to suit specific shows, which we’ve already seen happening.”
The system Adlib devised and built is versatile, strong - able to take the weight of Genie access equipment - but at the same time open enough to allow performers to crawl through it to get to traps or other routes onto the stage (“actors get very excited about being here, then complain about getting round under the stage - then we tell them, that’s how it was in Shakespeare’s day!,” says Dave Woodward).
The decking is made from more modern timber, but of a colour that works well with the oak, locked rigidly together using reusable clamps rather than screws, with care taken to ensure that the smallest possible set of tools is required for set-up or demount to speed up changeovers. Adlib’s team, led by Andrew Hastwell, have included some nice touches, such as holes in the framework for cable runs, and grip tape cut into the outer edges of the stage front rostra to give actors a hint that they are close to the edge.
The seating that sits in the pit when required is open bench seating. “Going with bench seats was a very conscious decision,’ according to Arup’s Richard Bunn. “They’re clearly quite different from the increasingly more comfortable seats, almost recliners with drinks holders, that we see going in to other theatres. But the brilliant thing about these is the intimacy you can achieve.”
Those bench seats provide more than just seating: they also provide the route in for the ventilation air supply, from a plenum below the floor. Without physical separators between the seats, there could be the ability to just keep cramming more people in on successful shows, as perhaps would have happened in Shakespeare’s time; now licensing restrictions provide the upper limit, the theatre able to accommodate between 320 and 470 people depending on format.
My choice would be to take seats in the front row of either balcony, so that you have the balcony front to lean forward onto: this is very definitely a ‘lean in to the performance’ type auditorium. It’s also one that, I suspect, has two quite distinct characters. Empty, during the day, it is quiet, almost contemplative. During a performance, depending on the show, I suspect it will range from intensely concentrated, to raucously joyful - at either extreme, everyone in the crowd absolutely in it together.
There is one last preconceived configuration for which elements have been constructed: the frons scenae, an Italianate scenic environment based on an Inigo Jones design which can stand in front of and so conceal the upstage structure of the theatre.
This has been intensely researched by Nick Helm and the other historians involved with the project, leading to the discovery that, in effect, those working in theatre in the 1600s sometimes had the same struggle to keep their paperwork up to date as those of us working in theatre now.
“The only drawing, a Webb drawing from about 1660s, shows the scenae as curved, but earlier records from the late 1620s or early 1630s suggested that it was not, in fact, curved,” Helm explains. “The drawing’s elaboration of a more baroque nature was presented to Charles II, perhaps to promote Webb as a potential candidate for the job of King’s Surveyor - a job he did not get, to his chagrin!” The version constructed for Prescot will be the faceted version.
Into this historically-based structure has been carefully inserted a modern technical infrastructure. This is most obvious in what is effectively a third balcony level sitting on top of the theatre, where the oak frame dissolves into more modern materials including a metal framework of rigging for lights and loudspeakers. Its design is such that it simultaneously manages to blend in yet also identify itself as something new and distinct from the historical form below. Above that is a grid level - ‘the attic’ - which can be exposed or concealed in various ways, including movable ceiling panels or a decorative series of calico ceiling cloths running on steel suspension wires that can be drawn across the roof like billowing sails, these also supplied by Adlib.
The roof panels are white, the calico sails blue, allowing variations on a sense of the sky. The panels also contain holes, allowing all of the rigging to drop through them without having to leave them open, if required.
Both grid and technical gallery are comfortable working spaces - carpeted, and even the grid with enough clearance to stand and space to move around.
They house a mix that is in effect theatre technology through the ages: six 270kg SWL 3-line variable speed motorised bars with pendant controllers alongside 20 3-line hemp sets and seven spot hemp sets which can be re- positioned as required via multi-groove pivoting pulleys and sliding clamps.
The hemp lines can be operated from either the grid level or tech gallery level. Traps in the grid allow the motorised bars to be flown up entirely out of view, if required.
Adlib supplied both the motorised and hemp systems; for the latter they even obtained oak from the same source as the theatre’s timber frame to create four chunky 200mm x 100mm cleat rails. The grid level also contains a central suspension frame with two 6.5m long steel rolling beams attached to the main building structure, intended for a performer to be rigged at high level then tracked out over the access hole in the grid before being lowered from the heavens into the performance below.
All of these facilities are able to be used for any purpose, of course, but the seven individual hemp sets were specified to support flown candelabras for the candlelit productions the theatre intends to experiment with. “Nobody really knows how candlelight would have worked 400 years ago,” Elbourne notes. “There are no plans of where the candles went. We don’t know whether, 400 years ago, they’d have put candles above the audience, but wax drops off so we had to consider that. Those seven spot lines are a starting point for where we think might work, supporting chandeliers designed by Nick Helm because there’s also no record of what held their candles.”
Running real candles is, it turns out, quite expensive, so the theatre also owns a set of electronic candles from Howard Eaton as an alternative.
For other times, there’s a modern lighting system, based almost entirely around LED fixtures: ETC Lustr Series 3, ColorSource Spots and Desire Fresnels, Ayrton Diablo and GLP X4 moving lights plus some tungsten Source Four PARs. There is one unusual but interesting fixture in the rig: the Dedolight DLED4SEBI-DMX, a 40W twin-white unit. This was chosen because its compact dimensions allow it to tuck up discretely into the lower lighting positions mounted inside the second audience gallery. These positions are about as neat as they could be, but do stand out a little because rigging and technology suddenly intrude into the world of oak.
“I think everyone might have imagined that these positions would get demounted when not in use,” Dave Woodward notes, “but in the real world of getting shows on, that doesn’t always happen . . .” The rig is powered from 24-way ETC ColorSource ThruPower racks, providing relay power but still the ability to dim, if required; these, and all of the lighting infrastructure and facilities panels around the building, were supplied and installed by Stage Electrics, with the loose equipment, including the MDG Atmosphere haze machine and Look Solutions Viper smoke machine, from Adlib.
Interestingly, all of the lighting facilities panels around the building provide power out on individual TrueCon connectors rather than the more common 16A, without the paired multicore outlets that many installations feature. “I think theatre just adopted 16A because it was there, not because we particularly liked it,” comments Dave Woodward. “TrueCon offers advantages over the big, blue 16A connectors, particularly when trying to conceal cables. Here we’ve made some looms with TrueCon and DMX, though mostly we just daisy-chain power between the lights anyway.” The only disadvantages he cites are the price of the connectors, and the fact that their rig now contains some lights that use TrueCon, some PowerCon. “Adlib ended up supplying lots of adapters . . .”
Control for the rig is from an ETC Gio @5 feeding data out through ETC nodes and Artistic Licence DMX splitters. The console lives up in a control room on the top level, sideways-on so the operator can tuck in close to the big window to get a reasonable view of the performance below. Sliding this window open allows access to focus the lights rigged in this bay, which is a neat solution.
The original intent was that the sound desk - a DiGiCo SD12T, chosen after consultation with theatre companies such as Northern Broadsides and the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, who will be regular collaborators with Shakespeare North - would live up here too. However, it has already migrated down to the gallery level below, and feels like it wants to take up residence there permanently. That’s perhaps because despite its intimate nature and clear acoustic, every production the theatre has staged so far has ended up using radio mics, even if that hadn’t been the intention at the start of the production - the building owns eight Sennheiser Evolution Wireless Digital sets.
The feeling is that this is more to do with a modern audience’s perception of sound rather than any issues with the building itself, but it does mean the person mixing the show really needs to be in the same space as the audience. The resulting mix position now feels both a bit temporary and quite dominant. Woodward and his team are working on ways to make it feel more integrated in to this location.
The DiGiCo is supported by DQ_Rack and A18-D I/O racks plus a Dante card; effects playback is from a pair of Mac Minis running QLab, and sound ultimately comes from a range of EM Acoustics loudspeakers (EMS-61, EMS0128, S-18 subs, M10 monitors) driven by EM Acoustics amplification, this mounted in a separate rack from the sound distribution so it can easily be moved to other parts of the building if required.
Adlib supplied the sound equipment plus video equipment for the theatre (a Panasonic PT-RZ890 8K laser projector and assorted interface boxes) and sound and video equipment for the gallery space (including L-Acoustics X8 loudspeakers), with the sound and video infrastructure in the theatre also installed by Stage Electrics.
Given the multi-sided, multi-level nature of the auditorium there’s a sense that there might not quite be enough loudspeakers, but that’s always the nature of opening a building to a budget and more will surely be added over time. For now, a central flown ring of loudspeakers created for one show seems to have become the default main PA set-up. Plus as ever, it’s often about the people as much as the technology.
Sound designer Ian Dickinson, who designed A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the theatre’s opening show, recalls: “The staff are brilliant: they’d just opened a new building, they were massively overworked at times, but they were brilliant - really accommodating, so lovely. The intimacy of the building was amazing, and because we were all playing with it together it became a very close-knit company, everyone in it together.”
Dickinson also recalls an earlier recce visit, “when they were still finishing off the woodwork; sometimes you meet people so passionate about what they do.
I’d imagined it would be some older guys with these ancient skills, but there were some younger people to, who would just start describing the details of the wood - that was amazing, seeing that kind of passion.”
Support systems are also modern, network-based solutions, with ETC’s CueSystem for cue lights, and the Green-Go comms system, which Dave Woodward describes as “really good - but on the wireless version, just a bit complicated. The stage managers just want to be able to talk or not, so we end up configuring all the buttons to do the same thing!” He does note that this means that network configuration is almost now a default skill for theatre technicians: “Lighting, sound, comms, cue lights, video - they’re all network-based, so lots of network management is needed.”
AROUND THE BUILDING
The main Cockpit stage is sensibly, though not extravagantly, supported backstage. The dressing rooms are tucked into the rear, hill side, of the building and so while decently sized do not benefit from daylight. There is a wardrobe room that is reasonably but not extravagantly sized, but next door to it is another room that shows how technology evolves faster than architecture: intended as a rack room for the building’s IT systems, it is largely empty because most of those systems now run in the cloud.
The good, practical theatre practitioner that he is, Dave Woodward is already hatching a plan to re-claim some of that space. Upstairs there’s a nice green room, though the temptation to break through the sealed glass that looks out onto what clearly wants to be a staff balcony on the flat roof beyond must be enormous!
Behind the main Cockpit stage is a workshop-and-storage space, which then has dock doors for truck access. The door isn’t tall enough for a 40-footer, which needs to sit clear of it with a ramp - though as Dave Woodward notes, the theatre doesn’t really use a lot of scenery. This workshop is a useful space, though as with other recent projects involving adaptable theatres, such as Soho Place in London (see LSi Dec 2022), there isn’t room on-site for all of the kit of parts so the theatre also has to pay for off-site storage.
Woodward has found storage space nearby where, fascinatingly, seating and rostra sits alongside another recreation of a Shakespearian stage: “We have the theatre set from the movie Shakespeare in Love, which Judi Dench, one of our supporters, arranged to have donated to us years ago, before any of this had been designed, with the idea that perhaps it could have been used as the basis of our stage . . .”
The Cockpit is just one of three performance spaces the building houses. There’s also a studio space, intended for use both as a performance space and as a rehearsal room, when the black drapes can be pulled back to reveal windows and daylight. A truss grid hangs on motors above it, with an Ion XE available for controlling a rig of ColorSource Spots and Desire Fresnels, a DiGiCo S221 with Dante card for controlling a simple EM Acoustics EMS-129 rig, and with decking available to create a raked seating bank. Inevitably, the money ran out before this room could quite be completed: while trunking is there waiting for it, there is currently no permanent cabling; instead temp cabling running back through cable passes to a ‘dimmer’ room fitted with Zero88 Betapack temporary racks.
Outside the building, nestling between the outer box of the Cockpit, the foyer spaces and the hill, is an outdoor performance space named for local entertainment legend Sir Ken Dodd, whose family provided the financial support to create it.
There is a sense that the company is still working out how best to use the outdoor space - how best to position actors in proximity to the stepped, triangular seating bank while also dealing with the often conflicting demands of providing concealed entrances and keeping fire exit routes clear, though at least one complication was removed when the council nixed an architectural proposal to have a stream running along one edge of the space. Permanent technical provision is limited to some lighting bars mounted to the side of the building, an ETC ColorSource 20 console plus Desire D60 Pars and Strand Leko outdoor profiles, a Yamaha TF1 mixer plus RCF ART 912A self- powered loudspeakers, anything else assembled ad-hoc.
THEATRE AND AUDIENCE
Meant to open in April 2022, to coincide with Shakespeare’s birthday, building works inevitably overran a little, and the Shakespeare North Playhouse finally opened in May that year. Elspeth Graham has noted that even during the planning process, comments from the public where overwhelmingly positive, with several expressing gratitude that “someone should have thought we mattered enough to do this here.” Vindicating that are the astonishing numbers the theatre can quote around its opening, with a huge percentage of the population of the town passing through the theatre’s doors on the opening weekend, and something like 80% of the people who came to see the show having never been to a theatre before.
This building and the shows it houses have clearly resonated with the people around it: as a living theatre, it is a success, reflected also in the new businesses that have opened in the nearby high street - and in its winning The Stage’s Theatre Building of the Year award.
But how about with the historians who instigated it? After all the planning, the politics, the research, the 20 years of thinking, how did Nick Helm feel the first time he stood inside the completed theatre? He considers the question for a moment before replying: “When I first saw someone talking in there, I thought - this is a stunning space. It is not surprising that this space has persisted through Kings and Queens since Henry VIII. It’s a perfect size auditorium, not too small, not too mean. From the many models, the space wasn’t a surprise to me. But it was a surprise how well it worked. It made me - happy.”
And Elspeth Graham? She “was overcome by the beauty of the building and the feeling of joy and calm it somehow produces. It is truly remarkable, even better than our original dreams, the Cockpit auditorium producing a quite unique intimacy between performers and audience, as Laura Collier, the creative director, has also remarked. It is all quite magical.”