Manchester theatre: The Royal Exchange signals a fresh start

Kevin Bourke
Manchester theatre, Royal Exchange Theatre's Fiona Gasper, Sarah Frankcom, Greg Hersov. Photo - Jonathan Keenan

Manchester theatre critic, Kevin Bourke heads to the Royal Exchange and finds it’s out with the old and in with the new (ideas)

When Braham Murray, the last of the Royal Exchange’s founding directors, retired in July, there was something of a frisson in the Manchester theatre community. Could this signal a new beginning for the iconic theatre, especially in the wake of Fiona Gasper’s appointment as Executive Director?

The short answer is ‘yes’, certainly according to Artistic Director Sarah Frankcom. “The best way of expressing it is to say that we’re opening ourselves up to new energies and new artistic voices. It’s a bit like opening the doors and windows and letting some fresh air blow through the building,” she tells me as the Royal Exchange announces a genuinely exciting new season.

“It’s a very big moment for this theatre, with the Founding Artistic Director leaving. Braham’s was an extraordinary achievement and his legacy is massive. But theatre has changed and is changing. The landscape is totally different now and Braham’s departure has focused everybody’s minds on where we want to be in five, or ten years’ time. With the full support of our funders and our board, we’ve been dreaming a bit artistically about the risks that we want to take and the exciting adventures that we want to go on.”

There’s a perception that we are interested in plays by dead writers and it’s hard to change that notion

Such as? “One of the big things about our new direction is that we’re allocating a lot more resources to the commissioning of new ideas. There’s a perception that we are interested in plays by dead writers and it’s really hard to change that notion. Yet this theatre has had most success recently with the new work that it has done, things that we’re really proud of, such as the Bruntwoods.

“We’ve taken our audience on a journey, and 50% of our programme this year is new adaptations or new work, based on the hard-nosed calculations about how many people are likely to come to something. Artistically, we’re flying quite high at the moment and, although it’s a difficult time out there, our audiences haven’t dropped. In fact, there are many more new attenders coming, and some of those programming choices have attracted whole new audiences.

“Now is the time to be bold, now is the time to increase our commitment to creating new, original work. For every classical play that we revive, we have to make an investment in a future project, whether that’s in a new project with a new artist or a new writer or a new commission.” Although she and her fellow Artistic Director, the long-serving Greg Hersov, will be directing one production each in the new season, the new approach means we’ll be seeing lots of new names in the programme.

“In the past the company has realised its artistic programme through just a few directors making work,” she accepts. “Yet our unique selling point artistically is our spaces and our audiences. So, in embarking on a new way of making work, we felt that the first thing to do was to start as many conversations as possible, to actively reflect a talented and exciting generation of younger directors who are coming through, and give them an opportunity to see what they can do.

The Spring/Summer 2013 season is the first manifestation of this new vision and includes three world premieres, the Royal Exchange debut of four of the UK’s most exciting young directors, and the launch of the 2013 Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting. It opens on 20 February 2013 with To Kill A Mocking Bird, directed by rising star Max Webster, a trainee of the 2011 Regional Theatre Young Director Scheme at the Royal Exchange.

Other highlights include the world premiere of Cannibals, a new play by Rory Mullarkey, commissioned by the theatre and directed by Michael Longhurst. Ibsen’s ground-breaking masterpiece, A Doll’s House reunites star Cush Jumbo with her As You Like It director Greg Hersov, while Blanche McIntyre, winner of the Critics’ Circle Most Promising Newcomer in 2011, directs Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party. Told by an Idiot’s Paul Hunter, meanwhile, directs Too Clever By Half, a rarely-performed satire by Russian playwright, Alexandr Ostrovsky.

The season also boasts world premiere productions by two winners of the 2011 Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting. Janice Okoh’s Three Birds is going to be directed by Sarah Frankcom, while Alistair McDowall’s Brilliant Adventures is directed by Caroline Steinbeis, winner of the 2009 JMK Award for Young Directors.

“In terms of reshaping what the theatre needs to be for the 21st Century, and what it needs to be for its audiences and for Manchester, there’s nothing more thrilling than seeing new artists respond to the unique proposition of, particularly, the main house space,” concludes Sarah.

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