A £19m “Stratford of the North”, here on Merseyside, has been given the go-ahead - on the eve of the anniversary of William Shakespeare’s birth and exactly 400 years since his death.

Shakespeare North will comprise a theatre and education centre and is is expected to attract visitors and scholars from across the world to Knowsley - the third most deprived borough in the UK.

Backed by stars such as Dames Helen Mirren and Vanessa Redgrave, it will be built on the Mill Street car park, just yards away from the site where once stood The Playhouse, the first indoor theatre in Britain.

It was there, more than four centuries ago, that the Bard “test drove” his plays, directing and performing in them, before they were eventually presented at The Globe. 

Background: Mirren & Redgrave back rebuild of Shakespeare's Lost Theatre

Shakespeare North Playhouse will form part of an “International University College” - the first of its kind in the world focusing on Shakespearean performance with a postgraduate MA backed by Liverpool John Moores University.

The Shakespeare North Playhouse is a faithful reproduction of Inigo Jones  Cockpit theatre in LondonThe Shakespeare North Playhouse at Prescot is a faithful reproduction of Inigo Jones Cockpit theatre in London

Peter Scott, chairman of the Shakespeare North Charitable Trust, said: "We are thrilled that the plans have been approved.

"It is even more notable for us that we have been able to secure this approval so close to the anniversary of Shakespeare's death 400 years ago, when the whole world is thinking about the ongoing cultural impact of his work on our lives today.

“Now we know that Prescot, Knowsley and the whole Liverpool city region can join in those celebrations with extra fervour knowing that this exciting development is coming."

With 350 seats, the Shakespeare North Playhouse will be built to designs drawn in 1629 by Inigo Jones, the greatest English architect and theatre designer of his day. Helm Architecture has taken the archive designs of Jones’s London Cockpit Theatre and faithfully replicated the original. It will be the only replica of this indoor Jacobean court theatre in the world.  

Shakespeare wrote, directed and performed in his own works at the original Prescot PlayhouseShakespeare is believed to have directed and performed in his own works at the original Prescot Playhouse

The market town of Prescot was the only English town outside of London to have a purpose-built indoor playhouse, built in the 1590s. It was built by Richard Harrington, who was closely connected to William Stanley, the Earl of Derby, whose family home was at Knowsley Hall.

Historical records show Shakespeare had the support and patronage of Stanley and during the Great Plague of London, the troupe of actors who performed Shakespeare’s plays in the capital fled there.

Shakespeare is believed to have written some of his works, including Richard III, The Taming of the Shrew and Love’s Labour’s Lost, to honour his rich patron.  A Midsummer Night’s Dream is thought to have been written to mark the wedding of the Sixth Earl. 

The exterior of Shakespeare North at PrescotThe exterior of Shakespeare North at Prescot

Scott added: "Our vision all along has been to create somewhere in the north of England where Shakespeare's work can be studied and enjoyed for generations to come – creating something of a triangle between the Globe (London) and Stratford (the playwright’s home), both of which are synonymous with his work. With Knowsley's existing links to Shakespeare it is fitting that the 'triangle' be completed with a development here."

The project has won backing from the current Lord Derby, Edward Stanley who is the 19th Earl in the line. £5m has been pledged by the Government and £6m by Knowsley Council. Fundraising is under way to make up the £19m cost and building work is set to begin this autumn.

John Flaherty, Knowsley Council executive director, said: "It is fantastic that after years of planning and preparation Shakespeare North Trust has been granted planning permission for this regeneration project – it is a great news and really exciting day for Knowsley.

"Prescot is a small town with a big history and it is wonderful that that history is to be celebrated. The people of Prescot are quite rightly very proud of the town's heritage. It has the potential to have a phenomenally positive impact the area.”

Knowsley: more than a safari park

Shakespeare fled to Knowsley Hall diving the Great PlagueShakespeare fled to Knowsley Hall as the Great Plague tore through London
The Shakespeare North Project originates from the fact that the only known, freestanding, purpose-built indoor Elizabethan playhouse outside of London existed – surprisingly – in Prescot.
Research into the existence of this playhouse has suggested a more complex early-modern history to this small town than might be expected. 
It was a market town that hosted an annual fair and attracted large numbers of visitors.  This led to its provision of a number of entertainment venues - its many alehouses, its cockpit and – a playhouse. 
Since Prescot borders Knowsley Hall and estate, one of the major residences of the Stanleys, Earls of Derby (the greatest Elizabethan magnates in the North West and major theatrical patrons), the theatre is also probably linked to the Stanley's cultural activities.  In particular, some connections with the early career of Shakespeare have been established. 
Shakespeare is believed to have been a member of Strange's Men.  This was the company of Lord Strange, the 4th Earl of Derby's eldest son and was based at Knowsley and Lathom.  Strange's Men performed Titus Andronicus at The Rose Theatre in London and were the precursor company to the Lord Chamberlain's Men, Shakespeare's Globe company in the 1590s.
The Shakespeare North Playhouse will be built to designs drawn in 1629 by Inigo Jones, the greatest English architect and theatre designer of his day. Jones created a theatre in Whitehall called The Cockpit for the Court of King James 1. He named his theatre after the pit, used for cock fighting which had originally stood on the site and which inspired him to design the perfect stage on which to present the plays of his time, the most celebrated of which were Shakespeare’s.
The Playhouse, by coincidence, will also be built on the site of an Elizabethan cockpit - currently a car park in the town centre.