Theatre: More than a fair Exchange

Manchester's Royal Exchange reopens next week on time and on budget. But will its artistic vision match its architectural flair?
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The Independent Culture
For two-and-a-half years, the Royal Exchange Theatre Company has been absent from its home in the heart of Manchester. Forced out by the IRA bomb that devastated the city centre on 15 June, 1996, it has stayed away for a pounds 23m lottery rebuilding and refurbishment programme. While similar capital projects at other venues have been dogged by fundraising and construction delays, the Exchange's architects, Levitt Bernstein, have smoothly fashioned what one leading architecture critic has hailed as "the most fabulous modern theatre in Britain".

Happily, the unique theatre space has been left intact. Instead, the design has concentrated on a superb refurbishment of its surroundings and technical facilities, all of which has been matched by a declaration of intent from the artistic directors, Braham Murray, Gregory Hersov and Matthew Lloyd.

Last June, on the second anniversary of the bombing, they unveiled a 13-month season, which runs from now until January 2000. Over that period the 750-seat theatre-in-the-round will offer world premieres by Peter Barnes and Jim Cartwright alongside A-list revivals, including Tom Courtenay in King Lear and David Threlfall in Peer Gynt. An inaugural seven-month season in the 120-seat Studio theatre includes new plays and children's shows.

It is doubtful that any other regional company has ever committed itself so far in advance, yet, in commercial terms, the decision has already been resoundingly vindicated. Some 3,600 season tickets for the main house have been sold, bringing in more than pounds 400,000. At the end of a troubled decade - heavy financial losses, some pedestrian programming, the bomb - the Exchange, says Lloyd, is ready "to cut a swath through the future".

Such confidence is partly explained by the fact that the Exchange maintained a strong profile during the redevelopment. Within two weeks of the bombing - which caused extensive exterior damage to the Victorian Exchange building but, miraculously, did not harm the seven-sided steel module housing the theatre - the company's mobile 400-seat, tented replica of the theatre- in-the-round had been set up at nearby Upper Campfield Market.

The remaining performances of Stanley Houghton's 1912 generation-gap drama, Hindle Wakes, were cancelled but The Philadelphia Story opened as planned a few weeks later.

"We were the first big organisation to be up and running after the bomb," recalls Murray. "That created a lot of affection for us." Lottery plans drawn up before the bombing were revised, and the company continued performing. "If we had not had the mobile, I don't think this company would still exist. The Arts Council would never have kept subsidising us."

With so much of the retail space beside the Exchange still a mass of post-bomb reconstruction, the symbolic value of the company's return to the city centre should not be underestimated - its link with the bombing has been deliberately enhanced by the choice of opening production: the aborted Hindle Wakes.

The trio leading the company into the next century offer an interesting mix of age, experience and personalities. Straight-talking Murray, now in his mid-fifties, has been with the company for 30 years and has directed more Exchange productions - 48 - than anyone else. Hersov, in his early forties and an artistic director for 11 years, provides bubbling enthusiasm. The 35-year-old Lloyd, appointed earlier this year, offers you calm, earnest consideration.

This triumvirate system enables each of them to work in rehearsals knowing they can safely leave any administrative cares to the other two. Hersov likens the alternating current of responsibilities to jazz: "You mostly play within the structure, then solo and improvise on your own productions."

This partnership sustains the collaborative tradition on which the company was built, beginning in 1976 in the huge hall that was once the hub of Manchester's cotton trade. Early productions saw Tom Courtenay in the premieres of The Dresser and Alan Price's Andy Capp musical, both of which - and numerous others - transferred to the West End. There were also successful seasons at the Roundhouse.

Associates who benefited from the challenge of directing in a space which, says Lloyd, "tests and exposes actors like no other venue", included young talent who swiftly emerged as some of the country's most important directors: Nicholas Hytner and Steven Pimlott (both ex-Manchester Grammar boys), Phyllida Lloyd and James Macdonald.

Ian McDiarmid, who was an Exchange associate director before he and Jonathan Kent took over the Almeida, recalls: "The weekly meetings revealed that the directors had a novel way of running a theatre: it was oligarchic rather than democratic. What I liked about the Exchange then - and I'm sure it's true now - was that it was a terrific theatre for Manchester. It produced very high-quality work and never felt in the shadow of London."

Indeed, in 1988, this very newspaper described it as "Britain's other national theatre". However, between then and 1996 it lost its way, the limelight shifting to West Yorkshire Playhouse.

The low point came in 1994. "We had been through recession, a cut in grant, and had done an adventurous season, including The Count of Monte Cristo, which lost us a fortune," explains Murray. The response was to produce Julius Caesar, Absurd Person Singular, Charley's Aunt and Look Back in Anger - a conservative selection you would expect from any provincial rep. "That was a panic season and we could have been anybody," Murray concedes. Bolder programming ensued but then came the bomb, which one critic goes so far as to say was "the best thing that could have happened" to the Exchange. It certainly forced a searching examination of artistic priorities.

The results are definitely eye-catching, but so too are the ticket prices: pounds 23 for the best seats on a Saturday, compared to pounds 19 at Birmingham Rep, pounds 17 at West Yorkshire and pounds 15 at Nottingham Playhouse. When I suggest this is pretty steep, Murray provides a characteristically clipped rejoinder: "Not to the Cheshire set." His idea of sound pricing is to keep the bottom down, and push the top up. "There are an awful lot of people in this area who can pay pounds 23 and not think about it," he says. "But a lot of young people used to look at the Exchange and say `It's not for us'. Well, it is for them, and we have to price things so that students will come."

True to his word, tickets for the Studio cost pounds 5 or pounds 7. Murray believes that this "found space" in the Exchange's former set workshops will allow the company to nurture "a seedbed of creativity we have never tried to include: plays we can feel relaxed about experimenting with, without the pressure of having to fill 750 seats". Lloyd, whose critical stock is high after well received productions such as The Illusion, has nabbed the first Studio show, So Special, by Kevin Hood.

"It's a good play with which to inaugurate a venue we hope will attract younger audiences," he says, "because it focuses on four young characters. The older generation is only heard in a sidelined way."

Hopes that the Studio will have a fresh, distinctive identity, and Lloyd's suggestion that "whenever we think about the Studio we become a bit lighter on our feet", are backed up by innovative marketing. It is being promoted as a separate venue, rather than an adjunct to the main house, and there are plans to stage free trailer extracts at 5.30pm on weekdays, bringing people in as they leave work.

Levitt Bernstein have provided the directors with a spectacularly refurbished base. Daylight pours in through three huge domes in the roof, illuminating the colonnades that surround the module; plasma lighting takes over at night. I defy any visitor not to go "Wow!" when they first see the interior. Murray and Co must now ensure that audiences have the same reaction when they leave.

`Hindle Wakes' is in preview, opening next week; `So Special' previews from tomorrow (0161-833 9833)