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
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Guru Careers: Graduate Resourcer / Recruitment Account Executive

£18k + Bonus: Guru Careers: We are seeking a bright, enthusiastic and internet...

Reach Volunteering: Chair and trustees sought for YMCA Bolton

VOLUNTARY ONLY - EXPENSES REIMBURSED: Reach Volunteering: Bolton YMCA is now a...

Tradewind Recruitment: Geography Teacher

£150 - £180 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Geography Teacher Geography teach...

Tradewind Recruitment: Geography Teacher

£150 - £180 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Geography Teacher Geography teach...

Day In a Page

Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine