‘Is that a theatre?’ How Manchester built a dream space to leave the world behind

The former artistic director of the Royal Exchange reveals its extraordinary history – and the dramatic opportunities and unforgettable moments its unique design gave him

A young man arrives in Manchester for a job interview as an assistant director. Standing before him is the Royal Exchange building – once the largest trading room in Europe, where thousands of men in top hats, smoking cigars, went about their business. In the 19th century, when cotton was king, the Exchange was seen as “the hub of the universe”. Walking up the steps and into the Great Hall the young man is confronted by a structure of glass and steel, suspended from the four central pillars of the building. Like many people, before and since, he wondered: is that a theatre?

The Royal Exchange theatre was conceived by a group of international theatre artists who first met in the UK during the 1950s. Twenty-five years later, after working in every kind of theatre, as well as television and film, they had the opportunity to create a dream theatre of their own. I was fortunate to meet all of them that day in one room. Caspar Wrede, a bearded Finnish nobleman; Michael Elliott, a hawklike son of a royal chaplain; James Maxwell, an urbane American from Massachusetts; Richard Negri, small and intense from Italian Catholic stock; and Braham Murray, a pugnacious north Londoner.

They were a motley crew of highly opinionated men who operated as a group artistic directorate. To the outside world the notion of a group in charge was confusing and a frequent source of frustration. I always treated the idea as similar to a successful band: full of strong egos with different strengths but ultimately creating a sound beyond each individual’s talent. Band members argue, scheme against each other, have rows, don’t talk for periods of time, have creative ups and down, change lineups but keep making music.

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Image Credit: Don McPhee/The Guardian

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