Obituary: Casper Wrede

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The Independent Culture
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.