OBITUARY:James Maxwell

To a playgoer looking back on the late 1950s, it is tempting sometimes to wonder if there was ever a more golden age in our lifetime, with the English Stage Company at the Royal Court Theatre, Theatre Workshop and Joan Littlewood at Stratford East, the other Stratford and young Peter Hall's plans for it and for Shakespeare. Everyone was talking along European lines of permanent companies and mixed repertoires; and great things were delivered. Amid the turmoil, though, one unsung, unsubsidised, short-lived company delivered an idea that continues to flourish: that London's values are of no use to a truly independent company. It must, if it can, get out of town into a theatre of its own design.

The young Yale graduate James Maxwell had been smitten by the idea ever since he landed in Britain from Massachusetts a decade earlier to try his luck in London as an actor. He got into the Old Vic school which had been founded after the Second World War by Michel Saint-Denis, George Devine and Glen Byam Shaw.

There he met such lively fellow students as Frank Dunlop (due to run the Piccolo Theatre, Manchester, the Young Vic and the Edinburgh Festival), Casper Wrede, a Finn with ambitions to direct, and a designer of Italian descent, Richard Negri. They all learnt how cheap and chancy the commercial theatre was, how new shapes of stage were needed and how hard it was to put their intellectual ideals into practice. But over the years they kept in touch in the struggle to survive and retain the old values.

Maxwell's first job was a tour in the Broadway musical Kiss Me Kate. He did stints at the Bristol Old Vic and other reps. He joined Dunlop and Negri at the Piccolo Theatre. Then came his first West End chance. It was The Comedy of Errors, in 1956. Not Shakespeare's play, but an operetta with music by Julian Slade; and Maxwell had the right comic gravity as the Duke.

Three seasons later he was back with Wrede and Negri - translating and adapting Georg Buchner's Danton's Death for the '59 Theatre Company. Naming theatrical troupes after the year they are born may indeed date them, but in its five-month life at the lovely old Lyric Opera House, Hammersmith,the '59 Company became a fashion, a portent and a legend.

Only one show was an out and out hit. It was Ibsen's Brand, Michael Elliott's first ever stage production. And, of course, the season lost money.

Such an out-of-the-blue enterprise, mixing rare classics from Strindberg, Ibsen, Moliere and Buchner with Alun Owen's new play The Rough and Ready Lot, smacked of earnestness. But it fired the imagination on both sides of the footlights. Maxwell acted for Michael Elliott when he took over the Old Vic in 1962 before the National Theatre moved in; and then concentrated on television - Frontier, The Hidden Truth, Blackmail and as Henry VIII in the BBC series Shadow of the Tower.

When Elliott revived with Wrede and Negri the '59 Theatre Company as the '69 Theatre Company, to be based in Manchester, Maxwell joined them to adapt Daniel Deronda for Vanessa Redgrave. He played Prospero in The Tempest (1969), for Elliott, and Osborne in Journey's End (1971-72) when the '69 was using the University Theatre, Manchester. He also directed Arms and the Man, the '69's first production in the tent theatre installed in the Royal Exchange (1973) before its completion as a theatre.

From 1974, the company used Manchester Cathedral, where Maxwell, by now an artistic director, played Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons.

When the Royal Exchange, Britain's first purpose-built in-the-round auditorium opened in 1976 Maxwell appeared in both the first productions: Kleist's The Prince of Homburg and Sheridan's The Rivals. He then directed Albert Finney in Coward's Present Laughter, Patricia Routledge in Pinero's The Schoolmistress, his wife Avril Elgar in The Corn is Green andHarold Brighouse's rarely acted Manchester play Zack.

In Schiller's Don Carlos (1987), which Maxwell translated, he played with characteristic grandeur and resonance the Grand Inquisitor; and he retained to the end the '59 Company spirit in the matter of mixing old and new - directing, for example, the premiere of Michael Wall's Mobil prizewinner Amongst Barbarians (1989).

In the '59 tradition, he lived, of course, from television and films. But he never let either screen interfere for long with those ambitions which were formed so firmly half a century ago at the short-lived Old Vic school and at the old Lyric, Hammersmith.

Adam Benedick

James Ackley Maxwell, actor: born Worcester, Massachusetts 23 March 1929; married Avril Elgar (two sons); died 18 August 1995.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: HR Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are in need of a HR Manage...

h2 Recruit Ltd: Business Development Manager - HR Consultancy - £65,000 OTE

£35000 - £40000 per annum + £65,000 OTE: h2 Recruit Ltd: London, Birmingham, M...

Day In a Page

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
10 best high-end laptops

10 best high-end laptops

From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

Homeless Veterans campaign

Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

Meet Racton Man

Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

Garden Bridge

St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

Joint Enterprise

The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

Freud and Eros

Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum