Obituary: Richard Negri

RICHARD NEGRI was the theatre designer responsible for the seven- sided module theatre constructed inside Manchester's Royal Exchange building in 1976. He was a leading member of what I have come to think of as the Manchester Tendency - that group of theatre workers (largely, but not entirely, trained at the Old Vic School under Michel St Denis) who made a conscious decision to move out of London and put down roots in the North.

Negri was born in London in 1927, but his family soon moved to Chingford in Essex, where he went to school. After a period in the Navy during the war, he worked in a bank for a time and then studied art under David Bomberg at the Borough Polytechnic. It was Bomberg who suggested the move to the Old Vic in 1951.

The first manifestation of the migration north was the Piccolo Theatre Company founded in Chorlton cum Hardy in Manchester by Negri and the director Frank Dunlop in 1954. We had all been out of drama school two or three years and decided we wanted to work together in our own particular way. It was scarcely a conventional rep of the period, not least in the choice of plays, and one of its most striking features was the brilliantly original designing by Negri. I vividly remember standing waiting to go on in The Playboy of the Western World and thinking how much easier acting seemed when the set was so rich and atmospheric - and it had cost less than pounds 5 (largely because he had talked us all into collecting the materials from building sites).

Already it was clear that Negri was no ordinary designer, as he was to prove over and over again in the next few years. The turning-point for him and the group was at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, in 1959 when Michael Elliott (director), Michael Meyer (translator), Richard Pilbrow (lighting designer) and Negri himself woke up to an amazing critical reception after the first night of Ibsen's hitherto neglected Brand.

Pilbrow has given the most vivid impression of the part the design played in this: "The stage was five miles deep, 6,000 feet high, and yet the actors played - or lived - in a solidly real space that gave their presence a captivating reality." And all this on the tiny Lyric stage - Negri was always at his best doing the impossible.

After contributing greatly to the striking success of Michael Elliott's production of As You Like It with Vanessa Redgrave at Stratford in 1961- 62, and an impressive season at the Old Vic, he then joined Casper Wrede, Michael Elliott, James Maxwell and Braham Murray in their move to Manchester to work first at the University Theatre and later at the Royal Exchange.

During the 1960s Negri had started directing the Theatre Design course at Wimbledon School of Art - a course as original as all his other work. I was then directing the Acting course at the Central School of Speech and Drama, and we had a yearly collaboration that was both exciting and quite maddening. He was eager to escape from the tyranny of the proscenium arch and was determined to experiment with every possible (and impossible) arrangement of seating - "playing with space," he called it - and that meant that some of the less successful scenes we worked on were staged in the most eccentric configurations imaginable.

But the experiments were to prove of great value, for when the momentous decision was taken to move into the empty Royal Exchange building, Negri was the only person capable of creating a theatre that allowed him to do what he and rest of the team had always longed for - in his own words, "We wanted to put everybody in the front row." And so in 1976 his wonderful, unique theatre was born.

His imaginative power as a designer could sometimes carry him away. On one occasion, H.M. Tennant's director, the formidable Binkie Beaumont, looked at the model of a proposed Negri set and told him, "It says too much. Once the audience sees that, there won't be any need to do the play!" He must have learned from this, for his best work (I think particularly of The Tempest at Manchester) looked as though it had designed itself. His strength was that he lived right at the heart of every play he was involved in, valuing and cherishing every moment of the work of his collaborators.

Productions come to the end of their run, costumes and sets are discarded, but Richard Negri is luckier than most in this transient business, because his theatre remains after over 20 years, recently restored after the IRA bombing three years ago, and still offering a welcome to all the plays that have the good fortune to inhabit it.

Richard Negri, theatre designer: born London 27 June 1927; married Jill Adams (died 1998; two sons, six daughters); died Fakenham, Norfolk 17 April 1999.

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