On 14 November 2016, one of the Royal Exchange Theatre’s founding artistic directors, Braham Murray, and Sir Tom Courtenay took part in a platform event as part of the Theatre’s 40th anniversary celebrations...

How did you first meet, and what was your first collaboration?

TC: That would be CHARLEY’S AUNT. My friend, Caspar Wrede, who was an artistic director here, knew that I was very keen to work in theatre because I had very early and sudden fame, and I felt I wasn’t quite ready for it. He told me about Braham, and we organised doing CHARLEY’S AUNT.

BM: My side of it is extraordinary! I’d been trying to get Caspar and Michael Elliott to work with me for years (they were 14 years older than me). I was nobody, I was at the Century Theatre, which is now Manchester’s Contact Theatre, and Michael Meyer said to me if you want to get them to see your work, you need to cast their wives to be in your plays. It didn’t work, but then I was invited to dinner with Caspar and his wife and we had a disastrous evening. However, in the early hours of the morning, the phone rang and a voice said: “It’s Caspar here. You’re doing CHARLEY’S AUNT; how would you like Tom Courtenay to play Fancourt Babberly?” I said: “Yes! absolutely.” Tom then went on to do THE PLAYBOY OF THE WESTERN WORLD and ROMEO AND JULIET, which led to the formation of the 69 Theatre Company, which he opened with HAMLET in Edinburgh. That led to SHE STOOPS TO CONQUER, which led to the Royal Exchange Theatre being established. He brought audiences in for the first time.

TC: I’d been in two films, and I hadn’t enjoyed either of them, and I was at a loss how to continue that side of my career. I had such a wonderful time and I thought: “This is more like being an actor really.” 

How was the Royal Exchange Theatre conceived?

UNCLE VANYA Tom Courtenay 2001 Jonathan Keenan

BM: It’s a long and complicated story; you’ll need to read my autobiography to get the full details. Michael and Caspar founded a company called the 59 Theatre Company (in 1959) that worked out of the Lyric Hammersmith. As a 16-year-old boy, I saw their production of Ibsen’s BRAND and I couldn’t speak afterwards. I was besotted with theatre from that point onwards and I thought that one day I would work with these people, somehow. I had a stratospheric beginning in the theatre because I did a show at Oxford that got me to the West End and Broadway when I was 21; then everything went wrong because I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, but I kept a track of these people. They didn’t actually come to see Tom’s CHARLEY’S AUNT, but they saw my THE MERCHANT OF VENICE with James Maxwell and summoned me to their house for a day of talks about what theatre should be and do for the positive. They believed theatre should show light during periods of dark, which British theatre wasn’t doing at the time, and that’s what they wanted to achieve. Out of our connection we formed the 69 Theatre

Company, and the Arts Council backed us because they wanted someone to create a large theatre in Manchester, which is not to belittle the Library Theatre, because that was wonderful, but it was only 250 seats. We did a whole year or two at the University Theatre, Vanessa Redgrave joined us too, but nothing seemed to be happening. I went off to direct elsewhere; then I got a call from Caspar saying the town council has changed their minds and we could build a theatre. Originally it was meant to be on a greenfield site outside the city centre, but we needed a larger theatre to work in during construction, and Peter Henriques, who was giving us money and supporting us, told us about the Royal Exchange building, which had been bought to develop into a shopping centre but was sitting empty because plans hadn’t been passed (it’s a listed building).

I’ll never forget coming into this vast space for the first time and looking around. Richard Negri, who designed the theatre, wrote in the dust on the floor what Citizen Cane had written in the dust before he died, “Rosebud”, which meant something was going to happen. We built a temporary theatre tent in the Great Hall. It was winter and freezing, and we gave everyone blankets when they arrived, and for six months we played to packed houses. Tom was here in ARMS AND THE MAN. At some point, Caspar said we should build the theatre here rather than a greenfield site and everyone agreed.

Why in the round?

TC: I remember going to meetings and it wasn’t meant to be in the round, it just sort of evolved. There was one little model of a saucer, then there was going to be a cross shape; it was also going to be a thrust stage too. 

BM: All great theatre is about our relationship to the gods, or whatever you want to call them. In the Greek theatre, the gods came from outside; in the Elizabethan Theatre, in was the Globe when heaven was up there and hell was down there and man stood in the middle. Caspar said: “Today [in the early 70s], where would the Gods come in?” and the answer was we have to find the gods in ourselves so they must come into the space the same as all of us, so it has to be in the round. We were told the theatre needed to be at least 750 seats, but other in-the-round theatres like Scarborough and Stoke had fewer seats. We didn’t know how we would achieve it until Richard Negri said one day: “I’ve found the answer; I’ve just seen a beehive.” He created this theatre as near to a beehive as he could get it.

Tom, you were the first person to say anything in this space, weren’t you?

TC: Yes. We did a sort of trial run onstage, everybody did a bit, and I performed my favourite Hamlet soliloquy. I remember walking out and looking at the audience, and it was like hitting a wall of people. It was quite scary but it was also very exciting. I remember afterwards Christopher Gable, who was in the company, said to me: “You should’ve washed your hair.” 

Brahama and groupWhat makes this space special for you? 

TC: The most famous thing I did here was THE DRESSER premiere. I subsequently played it in London and New York and it was never the same. In the proscenium, it was nothing like as powerful as it had been in this space. The proximity to the audience was wonderful. There’s a line I say about northern ladies, “hot flushes and dizzy spells”, and to say lines like that so close to them was terrific. The money was better in the other theatres, but performing it here was the best.

BM: You can do close up acting here and the audience can feel it, and you can’t get that anywhere else. My favourite production was when I did HAMLET with Robert Lindsay. I wanted to do it but didn’t know how to approach it. It seemed to me I couldn’t do it in Elizabethan costume because it becomes a museum piece, so eventually I thought I wouldn’t do it with anything. So, we did it with no set, with big white lights, and the actors sat on the banquettes. It worked and Bob was amazing, and I felt, for the first time, I’d done proper justice to a Shakespeare play. It played to packed houses for eight weeks and people were queuing from four in the morning to get a ticket. It just touched a nerve. 

Tom, why do you feel such an affinity to here and to Manchester?

I got to know everyone through James Maxwell, who came to see me perform at drama school. This building, to me, is those people. This space I found more expressive than any stage ever. The last time I played here was with my oneman show about Philip Larkin. I did that show in many beautiful theatres, but none of them gave me that feeling I got here. It feels just like you’re talking directly to people. You can see when people are nodding off, but you can also see when they’re smiling. 

Hear the full in conversation below: