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£19m Merseyside Shakespeare theatre gets green light

Planned exterior of Shakespeare North Planned exterior of Shakespeare North. Photo: Forbes Massie / Helm Architecture
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A new £19 million Shakespeare theatre for the north of England that will have education at its heart has been given the green light, after receiving final planning permission.

The Shakespeare North project has also now secured full funding, in the form of both private and public investment, including £5 million announced in chancellor George Osborne’s budget last month.

It is hoped that the theatre will become the major home for Shakespeare in the north of England and will “reflect a triangulation” with Shakespeare’s Globe in London and the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon.

The Shakespeare North Trust, which is behind the project, said the theatre would be the first in the UK to be built with an education programme at its core, thanks to a new master’s course that will be housed on-site.

Called the Playhouse and based in Prescot, Merseyside, the theatre will be built near the site of a 16th-century Elizabethan playhouse, which is thought to have had connections with Shakespeare and some of his early work.

The venue itself will be a receiving house for Shakespearean, Elizabethan and Jacobean productions, with a 350-seat auditorium built to 1629 designs by Jacobean theatre architect Inigo Jones. When open, it will be the only replica of this indoor Jacobean court theatre in the world.

A 140-seat, multi-use space will also be created, alongside studios, education facilities and a cafe and bar.

Alongside the venue will be an education hub, home to a master’s degree and diploma in Shakespeare performance and practice. The Playhouse will be “devoted” to education, the Shakespeare North Trust told The Stage.

A maximum of 100 students will train on the courses, which will be validated by nearby Liverpool John Moores University, while there are also plans for extensive outreach work within the local area and in schools.

Kathy Dacre, chair of the trust’s development board, said the training programme would be the “raison d’etre” of the theatre itself and that its planned education and community work would be a “regenerative agent” for the area, which is one of the most deprived in England.

Dacre added: “It’s a perfect space to produce Shakespeare. The theatre will be a receiving house but at its core will be this postgraduate programme. We are going to use the idea of having local voices and companies contributing to the training programme, which is very exciting and unique in this country.”

She said the trust had consulted on the curriculum with staff from drama schools RADA, the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama and Rose Bruford as well as Shakespeare’s Globe and the RSC.

Alongside private investment and the money announced by central government, local authority Knowsley Council, which approved the plans at a meeting on April 21, has also supported the project, investing £6 million in its creation.

Peter Scott, chair of trustees for the Shakespeare North Trust, said the local council’s backing demonstrated an “imaginative side” to local authority funding.

“They’ve really gone out for us, in challenging times. For us it was a marvellously validating stamp on their part and shows their belief in it. Indeed, we’ve been hugely encouraged by central government’s response,” he said.

He added: “In a sense, creating this reflects this triangulation of London (the Globe), Stratford, and the north.”

Dacre added that the project would bring a voice to Shakespeare “that is different from the RSC and the Globe”.

“Part of that is regional, but part of that is social. We’ve got communities that are not at all theatregoers so they are fresh to it, and that is wonderful,” she added.

It is hoped that construction will begin later this year, and that the theatre will be operational by 2019.

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