OBITUARY:James Maxwell

Adam Benedick
Sunday 27 August 1995 23:02 BST

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.

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