The Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

During the 1960s founder members of the '59, and then '69, Theatre companies regularly met to discuss and develop their shared vision of the need for a new theatre in the UK. Directors Michael Elliott & Casper Wrede, the actor James Maxwell, designers Richard Negri & Malcolm Pride, lighting designer Richard Pilbrow, musician/composer George Hall and the playwright Ronald Harwood were the main team that initially met and, as Harwood recounts in his interview with Lydia O'Ryan in November 2005, an image is conjured up of smoke filled rooms with intense discussion punctuated by tea and sandwiches served by the long-suffering wives, excluded from this all male 'committee'.

Later meetings focusing on the Exchange development itself were made up of different people with Harwood and Pride no longer part of the discussions. Both Michael Williams, the technical director and lighting designer, and the director Braham Murray had become part of the team that steered the Exchange into existence.

George Hall in the context of remembering the successes of the '59 Theatre Company with 'Brand', 'As You Like It', he refers to early meetings of the core group from the Company that discussed a vision for the future of theatre in the UK. These meetings are, in all likelihood, those referred to by Ronald Harwood (see below) and were the precursors of those that planned the Royal Exchange.
(mp3 file 905kb, 5 minutes 9 seconds)

George Hall with more details of meetings of the core group from the '59 Theatre Company, as above, but with especial reference to the influence of the Norwegian philosopher and Ibsen specialist Amund Høningstadt. (mp3 file 729kb, 4 minutes 8 seconds)

George Hall remembering the detailed meetings with all departments of the theatre organisation who were consulted during the design process of the Royal Exchange. (mp3 file 3.28 mb, 3 minutes 50 seconds)

Richard Pilbrow recalls experiments with auditoria forms that Negri pursued at Wimbledon School of Art and the part they played in the development of his ideas for the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester. (mp3 file 1.2 mb, 2 minutes 14 secs)

Richard Pilbrow talks about the development of the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester and Pilbrow's view that "it is the most unique theatre in the World." (mp3 file 1.17mb, 6 minutes 51secs)

Ronald Harwood remembers early meetings of the '59 Theatre Company (mp3 file 1.36mb, 5minutes 49 secs)

Ronald Harwood
talks further about those meetings (mp3 file 1.06mb, 6 minutes)

Those discussions led to the move from London to Manchester and temporary residence at the University Theatre in 1970, followed by performances in the temporary Exchange Theatre - a chilly, blanket covered, tented scaffolding structure in the Royal Exchange building itself, designed by Laurie Dennett (a former student of Richard Negri's at Wimbledon) - until the final building of the Royal Exchange Theatre in 1976 and the launch of the first season by Laurence Olivier.

During 1973 Richard Negri was developing his design ideas for the Exchange at Wimbledon School of Art (where he was still the Head of the Theatre Department) in its workshop theatre. A series of scale models were built by Richard's assistant Peter Bennion prior to further discussions with the project team now joined by Michael Williams the project manager, technical director and lighting designer.

A concept model of the proposed new theatre made by Peter Bennion and Richard Negri

Illustration of the first concept idea presented to potential architects for the project. Artist unknown.

The video clip below offers the only opportunity to see and hear Negri talking about the Royal Exchange project. There's also a revealing passage where he gives an idiosyncratic potted history of the development of theatre architecture with typical, and still refreshing, poetic insight and humour.

video clip Quicktime movie, 8.4mb (go to Quicktime for download of free player)
NB This will take 2 or 3 minutes to download using a 2mbs Broadband connection.

A particular interest of Negri's was the effect of daylight within the domed building on the theatre and the fortuitous opportunity presented to the Exchange Theatre Company by the imperative to replace the domes' glazing for safety reasons. The Prudential Assurance Company, owners of the building, financed the enormous cost of this essential refurbishment. Negri declared, with a twinkle in his eye, that it was divine providence as it afforded the new tenants a timely opportunity to specifiy the colour of the new glass. The School's theatre window blackout shutters were duly opened and covered by an eventual combination of 3 Strand Cinemoid lighting gels that during daylight hours produced a cathedral-like ambience to the space. This same colour is now to be seen reproduced at the Exchange in Manchester. The resultant colour mix - a mesmerising violet - was a closely guarded secret!

The building was later considerably enhanced by additional technical features and other, perhaps more cosmetic, detailing (that could not be afforded in the original scheme) following the extensive structural repairs after the damage caused by the IRA bombing in 1996.

The Exchange is now a wonderful theatre to visit on a sunny summer's day; the atmosphere is breathtaking as one enters that huge foyer space of the old nineteenth century Royal Exchange to see, suspended from the four monumental columns supporting the central dome of the building, this lunar space module-like structure of steel and glass that is the theatre itself.

Follow this LINK to read an article in The Times by Diana Geddes from September 1976 that describes the context and development of the project.

the Royal Exchange Theatre prior to its opening in 1976
Photograph by Ray Green, originally published in the Observer colour supplement of 8th October 1976

The Exchange in 2006, the theatre in the foreground, looking up towards the central dome.

The Exchange in 2006, the theatre's interior viewed from the second balcony during a break in rehearsals.

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