A right royal exchange

Manchester's Royal Exchange Theatre has thrived against all the odds, and its silver-jubilee season will be suitably starry, writes Lynne Walker
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The Independent Culture

"We thought we would open the theatre and run it for about five years. We'll have made our contribution, we said, got it up and running, then move on to other things. We had no idea that everybody would go on and on until, literally, they dropped. No one had any notion that it would be so seductive and so impossible to leave."

That was 1976, when the Royal Exchange Theatre, nurtured out of the 69 Theatre Company, came into being, its home a fantastic steel-and-glass skeleton perched on the parquet trading-floor below the blue domes of Manchester's Victorian Cotton Exchange. The Royal Exchange launches its 25th-birthday celebrations tonight with Tom Courtenay starring as Uncle Vanya in his 12th production with the company, back in "his favourite theatre". For Braham Murray, the surviving founding artistic director of the Royal Exchange Theatre, the last quarter of a century has been, he admits, a dream. But one not without some nightmarish moments, he might add.

He little guessed that after 20 years of surviving the inevitable fluctuations in any company's artistic and financial fortunes, and the deaths of all his co-founders, he would find himself involved in the rebuilding of the same theatre all over again. After all, when Michael Elliott declared that new theatres should be blown up every 10 years, he only meant that companies had to renew themselves. When, after suffering extensive bomb damage at the hands of the IRA in 1996, the company returned from its two-year exile to a building refurbished to the tune of £32m – its backstage areas properly equipped, its vast dusty foyers warmly and brightly lit, and a studio space created for small-scale and experimental work – only the tiniest of adjustments had been made to the actual auditorium. It was near enough perfect.

The unique acting area, allowing an immediate exchange and sometimes uncomfortably close intimacy between actors and the 700-strong audience, was the brainwave of Michael Elliott, James Maxwell, Casper Wrede and Richard Negri, as well as Murray. It was the single most exciting experience of Murray's life, even though he was, according to him, "very junior" at the time.

For Negri, trained in engineering and art – and a product of the Old Vic – with the job of creating "a meeting place of persons who are all part of the same experience", the high-tech module became "choreography and sculpture all at once". Eighty scale models later, with almost every possible theatrical shape – the cross, the circle, the intersecting circles, etc – considered and rejected, the magical in-the-round stage space was born. So right does it feel, in fact, that now, watching actors marooned beyond a proscenium arch feels quite alien. "Where have all the people gone?" despaired Courtenay on the opening night of an Exchange production of The Miser adapted for a proscenium arch. It evidently works both ways.

The thrill of this space, its unique warmth and focus, was evident from the start. In The Rivals, Courtenay remembers banging down a tankard in rage and splashing the youngsters crouched on the banquettes, much to their delight.

Patricia Routledge confided in the audience from a seat in its midst, leaning forward to speak to the gallery above. "I loved to watch that bit every night," Courtenay recalls. Actors are drawn back again and again. Routledge is in Priestley's Time and the Conways in a glittering anniversary season that includes Amanda Donohoe in Hedda Gabler and Pete Postlethwaite in The Homecoming.

Then there have been the youngsters creamed off by a shrewd casting director. Kate Winslet made her professional acting debut here in What the Butler Saw; star-struck fans were somewhat fazed to find Clive Owen in a play by Bernard Shaw; while Janet McTear, Helen Mirren, Ben Kingsley, Michael Sheen and Helen McCrory all gained early experience at the Exchange. Followers of Richard Wilson found their favourite curmudgeon transformed into an old tramp in Waiting for Godot.

Murray agrees that it has changed, however. "It started with a very passionate group of people coming together and exploding all their pent-up frustrations and fulfilling all their desires. It was extremely exclusive, in a certain way. We were very particular; we were very suspicious of allowing people in, but as the company became stronger, it allowed more air to be breathed. The emphasis swung more and more towards new work, with 77 premieres in 25 years. It has had to change because audiences change and times change, but the fundamental passion that drives the company is exactly as it always was."

According to the late Richard Negri: "Sometimes they were bloody difficult – but that could be much more productive than when you all get on." Murray watched his elders set up ensembles of actors, designers and technicians based on the concept of a group of artistic directors who believed that the whole building should be run democratically and collaboratively, and that everything should feed into what was going on on stage. "Now we need to continue that tradition with a new generation of directors."

Adding the right ingredients to a creative team is largely a matter of trial and error, and has not been easy. "People like Nick Hytner, Ian McDiarmid and Phyllida Lloyd joined us and did some wonderful productions. Then, finding it didn't quite work, they moved on but we're still very much in touch. Guest directors come in with fresh ideas, like Helena Kaut-Howson and Emil Wolk, but it's difficult to find a group of people so like-minded and so respectful of each other as the original team. The thought of this theatre being handed over to a different tradition is tragic."

Greg Hersov, associated with the company since 1979 and an artistic director for nearly 15 years, and director of the new Uncle Vanya, is clearly on-message. His productions of All My Sons with John Thaw; Baldwin's Blues for Mister Charlie; Romeo and Juliet with Michael Sheen (one of the company's most successful shows); Animal Crackers; and, jointly with Marianne Elliott, Lorraine Hansberry's Les Blancs, all stand out as major triumphs.

In Marianne Elliott, the company seems to have found a worthy successor to her father, though she has her own views on the shape of things to come. Her best work here has included some in-your-face productions of work by Brad Fraser, and the Exchange is now involved in a collaboration with Canadian Stage in Toronto, where six new scripts are currently shaping up.

Murray is proud of the company's record of producing new work that is audacious, newsworthy and subversive: "We've done more world premieres since we reopened after the bomb. Audiences got very angry with us over a succession of contemporary plays that they didn't like and we had more hate mail and furious phone calls than I've ever known. But then, if a theatre isn't causing controversy, isn't at the cutting edge, it's nothing."

His wish-list isn't that long, but it includes an ambition to get the mobile touring theatre back on the road, to see the Exchange's own work produced in its Studio, and to have more influence nationally, which it surely will in 2003, when the Collins Theatre will house London transfers in the round.

And Braham Murray is quite aware of the theatre's need to keep renewing itself – without first being blown up.

'Uncle Vanya' runs to 20 Oct (0161-833 9833)