An interview with the architect Dr Nicholas Helm

Tue 29 Mar, 2022

With the Jacobean church in sight, and standing next to the car park and Old Museum in Prescot in 2006 a conversation between architect Dr. Nicholas Helm and Professor Richard Wilson sparked the idea that led to a magnificent and internationally important Shakespearean theatre built, right here in Knowsley. We spent some time talking to Nicholas in advance of the opening of Shakespeare North Playhouse to find out more about the inspiration behind the theatre and his hopes for its future. We asked him a number of questions:

What first inspired the creation of a cockpit- in-court theatre in Prescot?

“I had a particular interest in theatre architecture and Professor Richard Wilson – a distinguished Shakespeare academic –  and I had spent many years exploring ideas for a theatre and education project that might commemorate the link between Shakespeare and the north of England. In 2004 we started to focus on the 5th and 6th Earls of Derby, at Knowsley Hall. They had owned some of Shakespeare’s early plays and they were patrons to him and his fellow actors.

Professor Elspeth Graham had pointed us in this direction, as she highlighted an indoor purpose- built Elizabethan Theatre, which had existed at the end of Ecclestone Street, on the edge of the Derby Estate, in Prescot in the 1590’s.

I saw this as a great opportunity to further my research in to new forms of abstract space for theatre, commemorating the original with a radical construction that would challenge the current boundaries of theatre architecture.

But, as Richard Wilson and I stood on the car park that has become the site of the new theatre, adjacent to the Jacobean church, he listened to what I had to say – and simply responded: ‘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!’

I immediately understood him and a thought occurred – the car park was not quite the site of the original theatre in Prescot – but it was the site of Prescot’s cockpit; and although there was documentation about the original Prescot Playhouse it did not include any plans nor a description. I remembered reading about the royal cockpit theatre at Whitehall years ago – a converted building that had been described by one great academic as ‘a Shakespearian theatre waiting to be rebuilt’ (to paraphrase his words). I set off back to London to look it up.

This cockpit theatre at Whitehall had been used by the players of the Derby’s and it was one of the stages at court for Shakespeare’s troupe, the King’s Men’s. It was the evening stage for their patron, after daytime plays at the Globe. At first it was used in temporary format for James 1st, (and possibly even earlier for Elizabeth 1st ) then it was made permanent for Charles 1st . A key point about this theatre is that there is a wealth of information about it. The remains of the original building, built by Henry VIII in 1533, sit directly below No. 10 Downing Street, where Cockpit Passage still exists.

The connections seemed serendipitous, and as I looked at it again, instinct told me this was the right choice – the court players and Shakespeare had direct links with this space and there was an axis to the Earls of Derby, their houses and Prescot. It was indoor and of a perfect scale, and what is more it was highly ‘architectural’ in essence. Professor Andrew Gurr the great Shakespearean academic, confirmed the choice, and since then so has the wider academic community. (I discussed the idea over long periods with Andrew Gurr as perhaps the leading authority in the country, and then a much wider group of specialists.)

We had our replica – indoor of a small, but good size. We had a commemorative theatre to enrich Prescot with its own history, and to give it the most accurate architectural representation of a Shakespeare stage in the world. (I say this, even knowing the competition that could be said to be represented by the Rose on Bankside, where the footprint was unearthed in 1989 and the diary of the impresario Philip Henslowe still exists, a most informative record; we are the architects for this one as well!)

Since the discussion Richard and I had back in 2006 a project has been delivered that in many ways satisfied both of our hopes. A replica of the Whitehall theatre is set inside a contemporary education and public building. We have looked back to project into the future and understand new ideas from the old.”


What is special about the design of this theatre, and its original at Whitehall?

“This theatre is a relative of the Globe but, it has a much smaller diameter being two thirds of the size of the original, which was considerably smaller than today’s replica on Bankside.

The Whitehall Cockpit, unlike the other arena theatres, was indoor. It had a good acoustic and atmosphere for drama, which was held in candle light. The scale was intimate. The 1533 original was a space described in 1539 as being ‘of fine workmanship’ and with the ‘round’ shape it offered a variety of opportunities for performance.

The most fascinating aspect of the theatre is how it was transformed and experimented with over time and then finally became a fixed solution. This was as Inigo Jones’s renaissance version of the Shakespearean stage, a capture of what it had been, and a perpetuation of a type on the wane since 1612, the moment of Shakespeare’s Tempest productions.

In our replica concept in Knowsley we have attempted to honour both the experimental space of Shakespeare’s lifetime and the permanent stage that followed. In essence we have two theatres in one, each with its own character.

Originally, the Whitehall Cockpit had been a cock fighting pit, but it was big for such a space and a particularly royal take on the usually simple enclosure. In action it was a cauldron of excitement, one where elegant, bejewelled courtiers were the players in a bloody torchlit scene. It was a gambling den, an animal baiting ring in miniature, a theatre- in- the round, a small Roman amphitheatre.

For James 1st – from 1604 – and Inigo Jones who was ‘surveyor’ (read ‘architect’) to his eldest son Henry this space was a magical laboratory for theatrical experiment. It was here that Shakespeare and his contemporaries, with advice and ideas from Jones could try out different indoor arrangements. In my manuscript for a book, I propose for example, the theory that Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, which is almost a musical one might say, was in fact written specifically for this space, not as is usually proposed for Blackfriars. It is not so hard to envisage this, as of course one can imagine an island-like stage with actors entering from below ( and flying from above) and scenic elements in the ceiling ‘sky’ above; and it is a fact that a whole run of Shakespeare plays was played there at Christmas 1612/13 – and – to commemorate a royal wedding!

Years later – 14 years after Shakespeare’s death – these experiments ended,  but a fantastic crystallisation was made as a single form, a quintessence, presumably, of the most successful earlier arrangement. King Charles I commissioned Jones to secure the best design in a fashionable way as a permanent theatre fit for a ‘Renaissance royal’. Jones’s final design of 1629 was influenced by continental models and he was particularly interested in the Italian style of Palladio’s & Scamozzi’s Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza; but the Jones design played both to the royal brief and that of the King’s Men.

It had to suit the aristocratic social rituals of the time – with the audience being orientated in two directions, the drama being played out in the royal seating area as well on the stage; and it also had to conform to the acting disciplines of the King’s Men.

In the ‘end-on’ format our Cockpit Theatre will show this renaissance design, complete with the great frons scaenae, the renaissance interpretation of the Roman stage wall, creating a backdrop for the stage. This is really the Cockpit-at-Court version, whereas in-the-round it is a reversion to earlier experimental forms as the Whitehall Cockpit. “

Who is Inigo Jones and why was his design so special?

“The short answer is that he was an inspired theatre architect. An inspired architect independently, in the outside world also – away from theatre. It was he who was responsible from 1604 and the accession of James I, for the creation of the astounding theatrical events known as royal masques; here he joined forces with the great writers of scripts of the time, such as Ben Jonson.

These were theatrical spectacles akin to musicals and operas of today but they were also royal rituals. They were aristocratic events so indulgent and extravagant that they would, in the end, precipitate unrest and then revolution. Almost inevitably, it might be suggested, Inigo Jones’s design for the Banqueting House which was used internally for theatre and masques; externally became the backdrop, the site with scaffold in front – for the most symbolic and dramatic event of the era. It was in January 1649 the scene for the beheading of Charles I.

Jones was an architect and theatre designer of exceptional capabilities. His important permanent work on the Whitehall Cockpit from 1628-1630, presented a theatrical-design that was a defining counterpoint when set alongside his other endeavours at Court.

Through the masques and pastorals Jones knew scenic drama environments better than anyone in England in the first half of 17th Century, but he identified the Cockpit space as ‘an auditory theatre’ ( a term coined by Andrew Gurr) of the Shakespearean mode. It was a theatre of symbol and the imagination, not of seductive spectacle.

Knowsley has the only built Jones – or architects – design of a theatre conforming to a Shakespearean brief, and for this reason amongst others it is a replica of international importance.”

Looking back at the project to recreate this theatre in Knowsley, what are your abiding feelings and hopes for the future?

“As in any project of this type there have been many trials and compromises along the way
The project brings to mind a Tennyson phrase (highlighted by Richard Wilson):

‘Tho’ much is taken much abides…’

This phrase captures my sense of the process, recognising that the design has shown itself to be robust!

Whatever the compromises that had to be made, it is quite extraordinary that Knowsley Metropolitan Borough Council and the Shakespeare North Trust have made this project a reality and retained the concept and quality, and I must pay the highest tribute to them for this. It will be enjoyed by generations of schoolchildren as well as local, national and international visitors.

The architectural integrity of this endeavour remains intact, it is a replica of a 17th century theatre, a double replica, and each form is associated with Inigo Jones- one of the greatest theatre architects ever to have lived. I can’t stress enough that it is a jewel of global importance to theatrical scholars, the public and schoolchildren. It will be a resource of astounding significance, a simple place of pleasure at one level; at another a laboratory and a springboard for creativity. It is a local cultural facility while being part of a special national and international network.

The space in action will help us understand all that was truly remarkable about the original theatre. It will have a special atmosphere as the auditorium and stage become one, the eyes adjust in the candlelight, and the gentleness engendered prevails; and as Professor Martin White pointed out ‘the low light in such spaces lowers the pulse rate’ – something we all need nowadays!

So, at times a therapeutic experience can be had, but nevertheless there will be plenty of opportunity for high excitement and exploration. Today our social and political situations are so different from Shakespeare’s era, but the origins of theatrical impulses are perhaps not so; we can project the residue and as with any genetic material use it to originate in the future.

I hope that theatre makers will try to understand the process of which Shakespeare was a part, even reflect on the spatial freedoms he seems at times to mourn, not least as he suggests: ‘set me free .’ ( The last line of The Tempest.)

To this extent medieval Prescot may be re-presented as a place where theatre makers are not wholly constrained by the auditorium, so new boundaries and forms can emerge. The building as a whole, even the town can offer opportunities seen nowhere else.”

Want to find out more?

Dr Nicholas Helm’s book,  The Whitehall Cockpit 1533 – 1674 ; Inigo Jones & William Shakespeare documents the creation of the Shakespeare North Playhouse as it presents research and theoretical ideas. It will be available to buy in summer 2023.

An outline of the main contributors to the project idea, design, and build is as follows:

Knowsley Council:
Architect: HELM Architecture, London: Nicholas Helm and team
Executive Architects: Austin-Smith:Lord: Mike Yates and team
Many consultant teams: Mott Macdonald , Arups, Aecom

Contractor Kier Construction.

Concept Origination: Professor Richard Wilson and Dr Nicholas Helm (with Theatre Director Professor David Thacker and research Professor Elspeth Graham).

Academic and research partners:
Professor Andrew Gurr, Gordon Higgott and Jonathon Greenfield. The theatre fabrication research by McCurdy & Co (and Peter McCurdy).
Theatre consultants Arup

The original Development Board of Shakespeare North Trust lead during the crucial period by Peter Scott & Professor Kathy Dacre