Friday 17th September 1976

Is Manchester’s new theatre a white elephant or a rose?

Round a central stage unfurls a spiral of septagonal galleries, encased in a skin of glass and supported by a web of steel tubes, the whole 150-ton superstructure being suspended on four one-foot-square points within a vast marble-pillared Victorian hall. This is the Royal Exchange Theatre in the former Royal Cotton Exchange in Manchester which was opened this week by Lord Olivier.

It is the culmination of a 20-year-old dream by Richard Negri, former director of the theatre department of the Wimbledon School of Art, which has been realized by Levitt, Bernstein, Associates, a small London firm of architects. The 750-seat theatre claims to be the first in this country to be entirely built in the round, and the most intimate of its kind in the world. No member of the audience is farther than 35 feet from the centre of the stage. Predictably the whole enterprise is already surrounded by controversy.

“No one ever quite believed it would happen: it was such a weird thing”, said David Levitt, one of the three architects. “The beginning for us was a small paper and wire model on a table, with Richard Negri pacing round it talking about the form of a rose. How, we wondered, would we ever bring this man down to earth? Fortunately we never have.”

For Richard Negri the beginning goes back to 1953 when he, Frank Dunlop, James Maxwell and other designers, actors and the directors who had trained under the late Michel Saint-Denis at the Old Vic Theatre School, decided to form a small company to pursue their theatrical and artistic ideals.

Since then the group, with some additions and departures have come together intermittently, first forming the 59 Theatre Company, based at the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith in 1959, and 10 years later the 69 Theatre Company, based once more in Manchester, presenting plays first in the University Theatre and then in a temporary tent inside the Great Hall of the Royal Exchange, where trading finally ceased in 1968.

Throughout this time the group, which has now changed its name to the Royal Exchange Theatre Company, were looking for an ideal permanent home and Richard Negri was tentatively groping his way towards his concepts of a structure that was at once superbly tuned to the needs of a multi-purpose theatre, unashamedly naked and unpretentious in its design, organic in its adaptability, while retaining something of the form, simplicity and poetry of a rose. Richard Negri still talks a lot about his rose.

For him the twist of the seven-sided seating and lighting galleries topped by the louvred panels around the roof – that together with the theatre’s fifteen doors can be opened wide or shut within seconds to control the echo-chamber effects of the vast marble and parquet-floored hall outside – symbolize a flower opening and closing its petals.

Levitt, Bernstein, Associates, a little-known young partnership, were chosen from more than 30 firms that were interviewed because it was felt that they had the sensitivity, patience and gentleness to interpret Richard Negri’s fragile, seemingly impossible ideas, without bringing any prejudices of their own about theatre design. They had never designed a theatre before.

This point was very important to Michael Elliott, The Royal Exchange Company’s principal artistic director and the last director of the Old Vic before it became the National Theatre. For in his view there has not been a successful theatre built since the Second World War. All have failed, he maintains, because they tried to be all things to all men and ended up by being nothing to anyone.

In the Royal Exchange Theatre he believes they have succeeded in avoiding that pitfall by adhering unfalteringly to Richard Negri’s vision and to a clear order of priorities, at the top of which was intimacy.

“Everything has been sacrificed to intimacy”, Michael Elliott says. “We wanted to explode the artificial mystique that segregates actor and audience. The spectators are so close to the actors that there can be no room for pretence, not even for a second. The emotional content must be real, otherwise the actor must fail, no matter how good his make-up, costume or posture. Acting becomes a question of being rather than doing.”

Being a circular stage, there is no traditional backdrop or side-wings. The actors use the same doors as the audience to make their entrances and the hall/foyer as their assembly point. The “stage” itself is simply a continuation of the floor, with no raised platform and no curtain.

The Royal Exchange has a wide-ranging programme of lunch-time, afternoon, evening and late-night events already lined up, including tonight’s concert by Alan Price, a poetry reading by Paul Scofield and Joy Parker, and a series of classical concerts as well as its first two theatre productions, The Rivals by Sheridan and The Prince of Homburg written by Heinrich von Kleist in 1810, both starring Tom Courtenay. Sir Alec Guinness and Albert Finney are due to appear in later productions. Seat prices range from 50p to £2.50. Some discussion “forums” are entirely free.

The theatre has cost less than £1m to build, about a quarter of what it would have cost to build a free-standing theatre. This despite severe engineering problems when it was discovered that the floor hall could not bear the weight of the theatre, and that all but the ground floor would have to be suspended by a steel cage resting on sockets inside the marble pillars. Despite, too, fire-safety regulations which meant that only non-inflammable materials could be used. Everything that would normally be in wood, plaster or other synthetic materials is in steel. The only combustible objects are the woollen seats and carpets, which will char rather than burn.

The Greater Manchester County Council has given £200,000 and Manchester City Council £100,000 towards the capital costs. A further £250,000 has been raised by public subscription. The county council and city council have also agreed to pay £145,000 toward the estimated £450,000 running costs for the first year. The Arts Council have now matched that. Only £137,000 is expected to come from box office receipts, based on 60 per cent capacity.

But there are growing rumblings of criticisms and discontent from Mancunians who do not understand why local authorities should be squandering money on yet another theatre for Manchester, when it already has two 2,000-seat theatres, both making a loss, two small repertory theatres, and a well-equipped 650-seat theatre in the Royal Northern College of Music, less than a mile from the Royal Exchange. They complain that the rates are already among the highest in the country, and ask why they should have to pay for what some people already see as more of a white elephant than a rose.

Diana Geddes

Close Window