Obituary: Casper Wrede

THE THEATRE director Casper Wrede is best remembered as the man who, with Michael Elliott, James Maxwell and, later, Braham Murray, created the company that has eventually emerged in Manchester as the Royal Exchange Theatre Company.

The building that houses this company, the old Cotton Exchange, was blown askew by the IRA one day in June 1996; but now, refurbished and expanded, it is due to re-open to the public on 30 November. Amidst the celebrations, many will feel the sadness of Casper Wrede's absence.

He was born heir to the title Baron Wrede of Elima in 1929, in Varberg, in the far-eastern region of Finland known as Karelia which the Russians annexed in the Thirties. At the age of 15 he found himself armed and fighting with the Germans against the Russians to recover Finnish soil. A few months later, he was fighting with the Russians against the retreating forces of Hitler's Third Reich.

The Second World War over, Wrede realised that life in an industrial family business, within an almost feudal society, was not for him. (Several decades later, he was to marry his childhood friend Karin Bang, who remained his loyal and devoted wife to the end.) His early influences were an aunt who ran the Swedish-speaking theatre in Helsinki, and the friendship of Amund Honningstad, a mysterious guru-figure with whom he travelled around Norway and whose influence over his life was considerable. Wrede was still only 21 when, at Amund's suggestion, he travelled to England to enrol as a student on the director's course in the newly formed Old Vic School, where Glen Byam Shaw, George Devine and Michel St Denis were his tutors.

It was during his time there, in 1951, that he and a group of fellow students returned very late to their afternoon class with the excuse that he had been delayed by his marriage to Dilys Hamlett, one of the school's most promising actresses. A year or so later, his Edinburgh Festival production of Ibsen's Miss Julie, with Maggie Smith in the title role, moved to Oxford, bringing about his first meeting with the director Michael Elliott, with whom he was to work closely for many decades. Wrede spent two years with the Oxford University Dramatic Society (Ouds) as a professional producer.

While television was still in its stuttering infancy in the mid-Fifties, Wrede and Elliott brought to the small screen for the BBC such classics as Twelfth Night, Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, Euripides' The Women of Troy and Ibsen's The Lady from the Sea.

Also for television, Wrede directed Laurence Olivier in Ibsen's John Gabriel Borkman; Edith Evans in Noel Coward's Hay Fever, Tom Courtenay in Alan Ayckbourn's Time and Time Again, and all the early television plays by Ronald Harwood. He also made documentaries, which included The Summer in Gossensass by Michael Meyer on the subject of Ibsen's old age, and Sibelius, a portrait of his fellow countryman.

Wrede's films for the cinema screen include Private Potter (1962), starring Tom Courtenay, The Barber of Stamford Hill (1963), One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1971), and Ransom (1955), with Sean Connery.

In 1959 Wrede founded the 59 Theatre Company which in a nationally acclaimed season brought to the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, such work as his own production of Georg Buchner's Danton's Death (translated by James Maxwell), the premiere of Alun Owen's The Rough and Ready Lot, and Elliott's production of Ibsen's Brand. This was the beginning of a theatre movement which has continued up to the present. The 69 Theatre Company was the next stage, launched at the Edinburgh Festival in 1968 by Wrede's pro- duction of Hamlet, starring Tom Courtenay.

Wrede's method as a director was quite unique. He could somehow make you "find" your performance without "pushing" you, as the following story illustrates. In the 1968 Hamlet I was attempting Horatio. With 10 days to go to opening night, I nervously approached Wrede and explained that the essential core of the role seemed to be eluding me. A twinkle came into his eye as he explained in his high-pitched Scandinavian tones: "Yes, well, you see my dear, it is not so much this" - and he held his right hand at right angles to his left - "it is rather more this" - and he switched hands. "You know - yes, yes - you know." I didn't exactly know, but from then on, his apparent confidence in my efforts meant that I began to enjoy the search.

The 1969 Theatre Company kept going for several years, until, after much searching for a permanent home, the old Manchester Cotton Exchange was found. It was derelict - knee-deep in rubble upstairs and empty downstairs - but Wrede and Elliott saw its possibilities, and commissioned young architects to design a theatre in the upstairs section.

At last, in 1976, the 700-seater module, floating below the triple-domed roof of the Exchange, was officially opened. Over the next two decades, Wrede's choice of productions in that magic circle reflected major interests in European drama and new work by British writers; indeed he was instrumental in establishing the Mobil Playwriting Competition launched in 1984.

He personally directed over 20 productions at the Exchange: among them the British premiere of Heinrich von Kleist's The Prince of Homburg in 1976; Ibsen's The Wild Duck in 1983; his own adaptation of Nadezhda Mandelstam's Hope Against Hope (1983); Ronald Harwood's The Family, with Paul Scofield, in 1978; an award-winning production of Chekhov's Three Sisters in 1985; a double bill of Oedipus the King and Oedipus at Colonus, the company's 100th production in 1987; Iain Heggie's American Bagpipes in 1988, and Robin Glendinning's Donny Boy in 1990 and my own Class K in partnership with Greg Hersov in 1985.

He was too wise a man to tell actors how to act. He could draw from a cast a harmonised performance as if by magic. He was a very serious man who was no stranger to struggle - and this seemed to give him a special understanding of the individual human mind and heart. When he laughed, it was with joyous tears in his eyes.

He loved England, English people and their pastimes. At the Spurs football ground one Saturday, many years ago, when the Chelsea striker, Peter Osgood, had persistently fouled an opponent (much to the annoyance of the Tottenham crowd), Wrede turned to the outraged, flat- capped man beside him and said in his strangulated Fin- nish accent: "Yes, well, you see my dear, Osgood is on the wrong side of himself this afternoon." Amazingly, the man seemed to understand . . . as we all did - the lucky ones among us.

Trevor Peacock

Casper Gustaf Kenneth Wrede, theatre director: born Varberg, Finland 8 February 1929; married 1951 Dilys Hamlett (one son; marriage dissolved 1976), 1982 Karin Bang (two daughters); died Helsinki 28 September 1998.

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
music The singer has died aged 70
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams looks concerned as Arya Stark
tv
Arts and Entertainment
photography Incredible images show London's skyline from its highest points
Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tv 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there