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Shakespeare Theatre (Knowsley)

Volume 603: debated on Tuesday 8 December 2015

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the proposal for a Shakespeare theatre in Knowsley.

Let me begin with a few acknowledgments of those who helped me to prepare what I am about to say: Professor Kathy Dacre, a Shakespearian scholar who is heavily involved in this project; Dr Stephen Lloyd, the archivist at Knowsley Hall, who made some helpful suggestions; Mr Mike Harden, chief executive of Knowsley Council; and, last but by no means least, Professor Elspeth Graham of Liverpool John Moores University.

Prescot, my home town in Knowsley—which I also share with my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Marie Rimmer)—has a unique place in theatre history. It is a market town and one of the oldest settlements in Merseyside. In the later Elizabethan period, Prescot was a lively town providing lodgings, hospitality and entertainment for visitors, including gambling and cockfighting. In 1592, it supported 19 alehouses and by 1622 it had an astonishing 43 such premises—far more than were needed for the town’s modest population of a few hundred. That reflects the fact that it was an entertainment centre to which people would travel for the market or the theatre, which I am about to describe. It also explains why there were very few people in each of the alehouses.

Prescot was the site of the Playhouse, the only free-standing, purpose-built theatre outside London in the Elizabethan period. It was built in the 1590s by Richard Harrington, who was closely connected to the Stanley family, the Earls of Derby, who were one of the most influential families in England. Ferdinando, Lord Strange, fifth Earl of Derby, and his brother William, the sixth Earl, were directly involved in the theatre, maintaining a talented group of professional players. Several important companies performed in Knowsley, and it was home to the Earl of Derby’s Men and Lord Strange’s Men, the troupes of actors which later formed the core of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, who performed Shakespeare at the Globe in London.

The original Playhouse in Prescot was a relatively small theatre that held public performances and rehearsals prior to more prestigious performances at Knowsley hall and the further estates of the Stanleys, such as Lathom house near Ormskirk, as well as those belonging to leading families in Lancashire. William Shakespeare attracted audiences from all social backgrounds and his actors had played at the Globe, where performances were effectively public rehearsals for more intimate and prestigious evening performances at the court.

There is evidence that some of Shakespeare’s earliest plays, which contain tributes to the Stanleys, were first staged at Prescot or Knowsley hall. If so, William Shakespeare would almost certainly have supervised the performances and may even have acted in them. They included “Richard III” and “Titus Andronicus” by Strange’s Men, and “The Taming of the Shrew” and “Love’s Labour’s Lost”, which were written to flatter his patron. Later, he would write “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, which was first performed at the wedding of the sixth Earl of Derby to Elizabeth de Vere in front of Queen Elizabeth. Last summer, there was a professional and accomplished performance of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in Prescot, partly in the parish church of St Mary’s and partly in the churchyard. It was given by a local company of performers and I had the privilege of attending.

In “Love’s Labour’s Lost”, which is set in a deer park, King Ferdinand’s ambition to make his court

“the wonder of the world”

is likely to have been based on the real plans of Ferdinando Stanley. It was said that, had he lived longer, he would have been the leading English contender for the throne. Shakespeare almost certainly wrote his early plays while under the powerful patronage of these powerful Lancastrian families. Evidence from archival records is supported by references in the plays.

Let me turn to the proposal for a Shakespeare theatre of the north. The aim is to create a unique, internationally renowned educational facility to encompass a commemorative theatre, to provide a key link between national, regional and local cultural and educational policy, and to contribute to the economic regeneration of an area that has deep connections with one of the nation’s greatest cultural icons. The Shakespeare North trust plans to commemorate the significance of Prescot’s history by creating a playhouse built to designs drawn in 1629 by Inigo Jones for the Cockpit theatre. Inigo Jones was one of the greatest English architects and theatre designers of his day and designed the perfect stage on which to present the plays of his time, the most celebrated of which were Shakespeare’s.

The project has the capacity to create a Shakespearian triangle with Stratford and London. As such, the Playhouse in Prescot will be unique as the only replica of this indoor Jacobean court theatre in the world, and the site of the only actor training programme in Shakespearean performance in the UK. It will be a leading public theatre with a student programme at its core and a purpose to realise one of the UK’s premier cultural assets. It will be home to Shakespeare’s language, lyrics and performance potential.

At this point, it is worth summarising what we are trying to do with some words from, appropriately, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”:

“The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen

Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing

A local habitation and a name.”

I contend that that name is the new Playhouse in Prescot.

An overall programme of education and community engagement would be integrated with the work of the Playhouse so that all aspects cohere around the philosophy and aims of Shakespeare North. That will allow individuals to participate at many levels linked to college work either through discrete courses, workshops and activities, or in a developmental series of activities through the stages of people’s lives. In particular, the activities involving early years and school-aged children are designed to provide a strong platform for the years of compulsory education and beyond.

There are a number of strands to the project’s work and themes, including the seven ages of man. In particular, there will be postgraduate education in the form of a master’s degree programme in Shakespearean performance and practice; an exploration of language and lyrics linked with formal education providers; informal education and community engagement; priority for groups in collaboration with existing local government and voluntary sector initiatives for special focused-needs groups in which applied drama work will offer a range of relevant and productive frameworks; a music and memory programme of work for elderly members; a plan to increase the skills base and employment prospects of local residents through a range of skills training and volunteering opportunities; a base for the Shakespeare schools festival performances in the north-west; and finally, the Knowsley international Shakespeare festival, which we propose in conjunction with the project.

The trust’s fundraising strategy to secure the cost of the scheme, which is likely to be in the region of £19 million—this is not special pleading—is likely to be the basis of a lottery bid. However, if the Chancellor happens to find a spare £19 million in his budget, we would be grateful to receive it towards the capital costs. The business plan indicates that the development would achieve sustainability in a relatively short period and would not need to rely on regular revenue funding.

Shakespeare North has been established to work in partnership and improve the attainment of education and skills needed for long-term local and regional resilience and to help to create a place where people aspire to live, visit, work and do business. I am not asking the Minister for anything in particular, but I would be grateful for some indication of the Government’s general support for the programme, without any specific, tangible support at this stage, although, as I said, that would always be gratefully received.

I conclude with a request to the Minister by way of some words from “Hamlet”:

“Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue. But if you mouth it as many of our players do, I had as lief the town crier spoke my lines. Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand, thus. But use all gently.”

We look forward to the Minister’s gentle response.

Sir Edward, to give you your appropriate title, may I say what a great honour it is to appear under your chairmanship? I thank the right hon. Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth) for calling this important debate. To respond to his eloquence, I should of course say:

“To be, or not to be: that is the question”.

But we very much hope that it will be—that this important project does get off the ground.

It is a great pleasure to speak about the proposed Elizabethan theatre and the community hub in Prescot in Knowsley that will result from it. It has been inspired, of course, by our most famous Englishman, William Shakespeare. The Shakespeare North project in Knowsley has been proposed by the Shakespeare North trust, and it has been long in gestation. To quote from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”,

“The course of true love never did run smooth”.

The project cannot simply be wished into existence overnight, but it is an exciting project and I hope to stay close to it now and in the future, because a lot of hard work has gone into it and it deserves to succeed. It would be fantastic if the proposals to recreate the Elizabethan theatre, about which the right hon. Gentleman spoke so eloquently, came to fruition. That would bring with it the chance for local residents and visitors to see Shakespeare’s plays performed in Knowsley 400 years on from when they were originally performed there by Lord Strange’s Men.

The project has widespread support, not only from the right hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Marie Rimmer), who both represent Prescot, but from local cultural figures such as Phil Redmond, who is the chairman of National Museums Liverpool as well as a renowned writer, the actor Alison Steadman, Tom Baker, Willy Russell and Alan Bleasdale. The proposed theatre and hub would be an excellent opportunity for the young people of Knowsley and would play a part in inspiring the next generation of theatre makers and performers, who could see Shakespeare’s work on their very doorstep.

It is indeed a very distinguished list of patrons that the Minister has read out. He might add to that Sue Johnston, who went to school in Prescot and was brought up in the area and is of course a distinguished actress herself.

If it is the Sue Johnston I am thinking of, of “Brookside” fame as well, I am delighted to add her to the list of distinguished people who have supported the project.

Also included in the list of patrons are Dame Helen Mirren, Sir Patrick Stewart, Vanessa Redgrave and of course, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth) said, Sue Johnston. At the launch of the appeal, Knowsley Council supported a bid to the Big Lottery Fund, and the project made it on to a shortlist of nine, out of 400 bids, but unfortunately it did not receive the grant.

At a public presentation involving 200 local residents at Prescot parish church early in December, the trustees described the fifth and sixth Earls of Derby as the Simon Cowell and Cameron Mackintosh of their day. Prescot is a very old, distinguished, former industrial town. To have Shakespeare performed in that town was unique; it was the only such place outside London. The fifth earl, Ferdinando Stanley, sponsored his own theatre company, Lord Strange’s Men, who performed William Shakespeare’s plays at Knowsley Hall and at the original theatre. Many of the playwright’s characters are named for the Stanley family. In 1593, Prescot became home to the first and most important freestanding theatre outside London. Although no pictures of the Prescot playhouse remain, it is believed to have been a cockpit theatre much like those designed by the famed Tudor architect Inigo Jones. It stood at the end of Eccleston Street, a quaint shopping street in the market town, where the flat iron building stands now. The chief importance of the venue was in bringing drama to ordinary working-class people, making theatre accessible to everyone—something of which the earls could have been extremely proud.

I will leave it there, as my throat is cracking, but I urge the Minister to empty his pockets and purses, and whatever he can find should go towards this project. There are many local philanthropists, including Lord Derby, I understand, who will help to make it happen, and a little from the Government would go a long way.

I hear what the hon. Lady says and I commend her for making those remarks, given the sore throat that she clearly has. I will obviously put the names that she read out as supporters of the project alongside those of Sir Paul McCartney, Cherie Blair, David Alton, Clive Owen, Trudie Styler and many others. Of course there is also the chairmanship of the Shakespeare North board. Peter Scott is the chair, but Professor Kathy Dacre has been mentioned, and many others have given so much of their time to make this project happen. As the hon. Lady remarked, at one point the project was shortlisted for a lottery bid, but it was unsuccessful. We can put a girdle about the earth in 40 minutes, but projects such as this take some time.

What is really exciting about the project is that it speaks to my own personal passion, which is to put culture and heritage at the heart of our communities. The project combines both. It includes a heritage element. It recreates the historic link that Knowsley and Prescot have with our greatest playwright. It provides a heritage centre by recreating the Elizabethan theatre and bringing alive the plays of Shakespeare. However, it is also an extremely contemporary cultural project, which reaches out to the widest community possible—to actors themselves in terms of training, to young people and to everyone as a community resource. That is one of the other reasons why I am so supportive of the project—because education and community engagement are central to the proposals. There is a proposal for an international university college, with a strong link to Liverpool John Moores University. That is a theme that I want to bring out more. The role that universities now play in culture and heritage is too often unacknowledged, but I hope to bring it to the fore over the next few months.

Of course the project will depend to a certain extent on philanthropic support. Many people who have ties with Knowsley, not least some of the people whom we have mentioned in the debate, will provide support, and I reiterate my thanks to them.

The hope is to create a Shakespearean triangle between Knowsley in the north-west, Stratford-on-Avon in the midlands and of course Shakespeare’s Globe in London. It is an ambitious target, but it could be an incredibly important asset for the heritage and tourism industry in this country, as well as increasing employment and aspiration in the constituencies of the right hon. Gentleman and the hon. Lady. As I have already pointed out, Shakespeare is possibly England’s most famous son and his stature across the globe is unrivalled. As an example of what Shakespeare North can achieve, Shakespeare’s Globe in London still receives some 350,000 visitors every year; Stratford-on-Avon had 150,000 overseas visitors in 2014, which represents an increase; and some 400,000 people visit Shakespeare’s birthplace every year. Those visitors to places such as Stratford-on-Avon generate millions of pounds for the local area, and it is hoped that if the project is successful, Knowsley’s links to Shakespeare will be of similar benefit to the local area.

I have hinted at the fact that I am passionate about themes such as place making, education and putting culture and heritage at the heart of a place. Next year, we will publish a White Paper on arts and culture, in which we may reference the project in Knowsley, because we want to talk about place making and education. Having a new performing Elizabethan theatre and arts hub would certainly put Knowsley even more firmly on the map. I was delighted to hear that the local council is strongly behind the project, as are the people of Knowsley, who understand the opportunity that it will bring to create new jobs and growth in the area.

The proposal aims to make the project in Knowsley part of the northern powerhouse, which is, as I am sure all hon. Members are aware, a major priority for the Government. That was demonstrated in this year’s spending review, which included investment in the Factory in Manchester and the Great Exhibition of the North. If the theatre in Knowsley gets off the ground, it will be close to areas that are replete with rich cultural heritage. Liverpool is a former European capital of culture and the home of National Museums Liverpool, as well as Tate Liverpool and the Everyman theatre. I was delighted to go to Liverpool the other day to host a round table for our White Paper and to see the continued commitment and enthusiasm in Merseyside for the arts. The devolution deal is part of our work to hand back power and responsibility to the region, and it is important that Liverpool’s arts and culture form part of that deal.

It is important to have this debate now, because next year, which marks 400 years since his death, will be a year in which we celebrate Shakespeare’s life. We will commemorate his works in a variety of ways. One of those will be “Shakespeare Lives”, a major programme of events and activities to celebrate Shakespeare’s life, which has the ambition of reaching 500 million people all over the world. The programme will be an invitation to the world to join in the festivities by participating in a unique online collaboration, and experiencing the work of Shakespeare directly on stage, through film, in exhibitions and in schools. The programme will run throughout 2016, exploring Shakespeare as a living writer who still speaks for people and nations, and it will feature activities across English, education and the arts to explore the story of how a playwright from England came to be enjoyed all over the globe. The British Council is working on the project, alongside the Foreign Office, UK Trade & Investment and, of course, my Department.

Here in the UK, Shakespeare 400 is a consortium of leading cultural, creative and educational organisations co-ordinated by King’s College London that will work together to mark the 400th anniversary through a connected series of public performances, programmes, exhibitions and creative activities inside and outside the capital to celebrate Shakespeare’s legacy. The BBC will also play a major role. Its contribution will include a live broadcast from Stratford with the Royal Shakespeare Company, hosted by David Tennant, and new adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays. In addition, the BBC’s Shakespeare archive resource will provide schools, colleges and universities across the UK with access to hundreds of hours of BBC television and radio broadcasts of Shakespeare’s plays, as well as his sonnets and documentaries about him.

The RSC will mark the anniversary with a far-reaching national and international programme of productions, including “A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play for the Nation” which will be co-produced with 14 amateur companies across the UK. It is important to recognise the amazing work that the RSC does with children and through its live screenings. The Birmingham Royal Ballet will create a new full-length ballet of “The Tempest” under its director David Bintley, and the London Philharmonic Orchestra will also celebrate Shakespeare’s legacy.

There could not be a better time to raise the prospect of a new northern hub for Shakespeare in Knowsley and Prescot. All the organisations that I have mentioned have the support of Arts Council England, and I am sure that all hon. Members will welcome the generous settlement we secured from the Chancellor a few weeks ago. He made it clear that the arts are one of the best investments the Government can make, and that we will continue to support arts and culture across the country. I am delighted that Knowsley Council feels the same as we do. Incidentally, we will also ensure continued free access to our national galleries and museums.

I understand the continuing concerns about local authority funding, but I point out that other sources of income, such as business rates and income tax, can put local government in a strong position to support local arts and culture. That is why Knowsley Council’s strong support for the project is very welcome, and I hope that its passion for the project will be communicated to other councils across the region.

It only remains for me to thank the right hon. Member for Knowsley for calling the debate and the hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston for speaking so eloquently. The Government are very supportive of the project, and we will continue to work with the right hon. Gentleman in any way we can to bring it to fruition.

Alas, poor Howarth, he cannot sum up, under the rules. I have asked whether he can, but—just say a quick word; go on.

I will just make two quick points. First, although the Minister’s comments about local government funding and the recent comprehensive spending review are welcome, Knowsley will find it difficult to take advantage of those opportunities, simply because the tax base is not there to allow it to do so.

Secondly, the Minister quite rightly indicated the tourist potential of the Liverpool city region and his ambitions, which I share, for our city region. I simply point out that Prescot is proud of the fact that it predates Liverpool. Although we very much associate with Liverpool and, equally, with St Helens, we feel that there is something unique and special about Prescot.

I am grateful for the general support that the Minister has offered, and I hope that we can collaborate with the Shakespeare North trust and others over the coming months to try to bring this ambitious, but exciting, opportunity into reality.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention, and I take note of the points that he makes. Local co-operation is important, but a little local rivalry is also welcome. I hope that Prescot will continue to press its case for being the most venerable town in the area. I reiterate that next year offers a unique opportunity to raise the profile of the project, given the huge focus that will come to bear on William Shakespeare’s life.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.