I have this image in my mind. A young woman dressed all in white is lying on the floor and holding a small glass animal in her hand. She is admiring the delicate creature, turning it round and round so it catches the light. A man stands at the bottom of a nearby staircase, transfixed by the girl and the figurine.

This was The Glass Menagerie at Manchester’s Royal Exchange. An internet search tells me it was 1989, meaning I was 15 and almost certainly on a school trip. I remember my excitement on learning that Ken Barlow’s son was in the cast (Linus Roache) but it is only now that I realise Geraldine Somerville played Laura, the quiet, broken daughter of a faded Southern belle. Today Somerville is known the world over as Lily, Harry Potter’s mum in the film adaptations of J.K. Rowling‘s books.

So, Tennessee Williams was my introduction to what would quickly become my favourite theatre. During 15 years spent in London, gadding about to play after play in some of the most famous theatres in the world, the Royal Exchange‘s unique space has stayed at the top of my list. And what’s not to like about an intimate theatre-in-the-round housed in what resembles a lunar space craft, itself suspended within the cavernous interior of a Grade II listed former cotton exchange, all glass domes and towering columns.

Royal Exchange CeilingThe Exchange is one of those rare magical buildings. Simply walking through it endows the pedestrian with a sense of calm and serenity. And I mean that literally. A few years back I was reviewing a matinee and then an evening production. It had been a long week and so I nodded off between performances. Close to 6pm, I was woken by a member of staff gently shaking my shoulder, all the while apologising for disturbing me. Now that’s customer service.

When I interview Sarah Frankcom, artistic director of the Royal Exchange, I decide not to share this anecdote. It doesn’t exactly scream ‘professionalism’ and I want to make a good impression. Frankcom has been at the helm of the Exchange’s artistic output since 2008 and is well respected both in Manchester and in the wider theatrical community.

Before I get to questions about her collaborations with actress Maxine Peake and her thoughts on the North/South cultural divide, I want to ask her about the Exchange’s Spring and Summer season. It’s an impressive programme. What is she most excited about?

“Having seen Anne-Marie [Duff] already in Husbands & Sons at the National and also knowing Don Warrington from All My Sons, I’m excited about some real powerhouse performances at the centre of great plays and great evenings in the theatre. I’m also really looking forward to seeing two of our greatest contemporary fiction writers in Howard Jacobson and Sarah Waters. We’ve started both of those projects and they are projects with very, very rich material and brilliant characters and amazing worlds. I’m really looking forward to how they manifest themselves and express themselves in our unique space.”

Husbands & SonsAs Frankcom suggests, there are some absolute corkers coming to the Exchange this year, not least Marianne Elliott‘s return to the theatre with her critically acclaimed National Theatre co-production of Ben Power‘s adaptation of D.H. Lawrence. The award-winning director (she was responsible for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time) is at the helm of Husbands & Sons although Mancunians may remember her as artistic director of the Exchange (she held the position from 1998 until 2002). And then there’s the very considerable coup of a Sarah Waters book.

Frankcom says: “Both of these projects have very big challenges. With Sarah Waters’ Night Watch, part of it is an evocation of the Blitz so there’s a really interesting question about how you give that expression in a theatre. Hattie Naylor has done an amazing job of the adaptation and one of the reasons why I thought it was an exciting proposition in terms of making a piece of theatre is that idea that theatre does human relationships and characters really well, and experiencing a character backwards felt like a really interesting proposition. It’s been simpler than we thought it was going to be.

“With Howards’s Mighty Walzer, Johnny Humphreys [the director] is grappling with how to use a story that is essentially told through table tennis. How do you create table tennis in a theatre-in-the-round?”

How indeed? But Frankcom has form when it comes to commissioning ambitious pieces of theatre, and she isn’t afraid to take risks as a director, qualities evinced by her varied career. After working as a drama teacher in the East End of London, she started working with new writers and in drama schools, later spending time at the National Theatre studio, Ovalhouse in South London, and The Red Room. She also taught at The Poor School in King’s Cross.

Sarah Frankcom - Artistic Director, Royal Exchange Theatre. Photo - Jonathan KeenanSince joining the Royal Exchange, her productions have included shows loved by critics and audiences alike. Consider That Day We Sang, written by Victoria Wood and later turned into a TV special. Then there’s Black Roses, the heartbreaking account of the death of Sophie Lancaster, and The Masque of Anarchy, an extraordinary rendering of Shelley’s poem and a co-production with the Manchester International Festival. And let’s not forget the Exchange’s female version of Hamlet in 2014 with Peake in the lead role. It’s bloody difficult to get the national press to venture up North for culture but this show had them booking their Virgin trains in droves.

What was it like being at the centre of Hamlet and dealing with all the attention it attracted?

“We were both [Frankcom and Peake] quite taken aback by how much interest it garnered. Audiences really got behind wanting to experience that play with a female performer at the centre of it. I guess the interesting thing is that the Exchange, and certainly in this last little period of time, is a place of all sorts of possibilities. We just try to take risks and make the work that we want to see in there and it’s always really cheering when the city and the rest of the world gets behind that. In a lot of ways the same thing happened with The Skriker which we’re about to remake for the radio.

“But, fundamentally, Maxine and I are only really interested in the live experience and what happens in that 700-seat theatre. The rest of it just gains its own momentum.”

Maxine Peake as HamletBack to 2016. Although there have been many television adaptations of Sarah Waters’ novels, theatrical versions are few and far between. How did the collaboration come about?

“I really loved the book,” says Frankcom. “We got in touch with Sarah and asked her if it would be something that she would be interested in. Initially she said ‘well just come and have a chat’. Then we got Hattie Naylor on board. And then I could see that the structure of the novel lent itself to being recalibrated as a dramatic structure for a play.

“I think she’s got a really wide demographic in terms of her readership and I think there will be people that come because they’re interested in Sarah Waters. But one of the reasons why I was interested in this particular period is that it feels that what she does in The Night Watch is uncover hidden histories and particularly hidden female history. That is tantalisingly part of some of our audience’s lives and certainly they can see and feel that. Of all the books that she’s written, it’s one of the most modern.”

And there are more treats in store. Following his arresting performance in All My Sons at the Exchange in 2013, Don Warrington (famous for his role as Philip in the TV sitcom Rising Damp) is back with the Talawa Theatre Company in King Lear.

King LearI wonder if the company can bring anything new to an audience’s experience of King Lear.

“I think that every time you do King Lear it’s different because it’s defined by its actor,” reflects Frankcom. “Don has an extraordinary majesty in the best and truest possible sense of the world. He’s a brilliant classical actor. What I would expect from that production is that it will be very accessible and very fast-moving and I think it will take King Lear all the way back to being a play about family. It’s an exciting world that they’re making to tell the story of King Lear.”

In a world where cuts to the arts are savage and widespread, producing theatres (organistions that make their own work rather than relying on touring productions) are few and far between. Does Frankcom think it’s important that the Exchange retains its commitment to being a producing theatre?

“I think it’s critical. It’s completely part of the Exchange’s DNA to make work for Manchester. And we need to make work that we feel reflects the hearts and minds and concerns of the city that we stand in the heart of. It’s very important that most of that work is absolutely originated here. Manchester audiences get particularly excited about new work and feeling like they’re seeing something that is being made for the very first time. We have a very diverse and loyal audience.

“Maybe one of the reasons that people get so passionate about the Exchange is because everything has to be different for our space so there is no other space like the Exchange in the world. There are other theatres in-the-round but not theatres in-the-round that are absolutely identical to the one that we have. Its audiences want to see the work realised in that space, a space that they get excited about and its transformation.”

Be that as it may, producing theatres are staging increasing numbers of shows that have either originated elsewhere or are dubbed ‘co-productions’ for, it is generally believed, the purposes of budget. What is Frankcom’s experience of this?

“One of the first things I made was a Simon Stephens‘ play called On the Shore of the Wide World which was a co-production with the National. The National has a new artistic director and I think Rufus [Norris] has a slightly different idea about how he wants to fulfil the remit of a ‘national theatre’ and I think that’s working more closely with theatres outside of London. But also Marianne [Elliott] was a very big part of the Exchange in the early part of her career. She knew she was going to make Husbands & Sons in the round and they knew that they wanted to take it outside of London and it was just a no-brainer.”

As a journalist, I’ve lost count of the number of articles I’ve written over the past few years on the subject of Manchester’s ‘cultural renaissance’. In a relatively short period of time, it feels like something fundamental is happening in the city and the wider region.

Frankcom says: “I think we’re living in really exciting times. It feels like there’s an awful lot of energy, it feels like there’s some really exciting things starting to happen with emerging artists. We have a thriving and ever-expanding community of artists who can live and make and work in Manchester and who want to be identified as artists who are making work outside of London. The thing that’s really happened is that Manchester is now looking out at the rest of the world rather than comparing itself to or looking down at London. That’s the thing that’s changed.”

The Night WatchNevertheless, it’s impossible to ignore the swingeing cuts to the arts, particularly north of the Watford Gap. Is there still a huge imbalance between the metropolis and the rest of the country?

“I think some things have been done to address that imbalance in public subsidy particularly from the Arts Council. Where outside of London really struggles is with fundraising and sponsorship and philanthropy. It’s far, far more difficult for all arts organisations to raise money outside of London in that kind of way.

“The thing that really marks Manchester out as being entirely different from most every other city in the UK is that we have a city council that is passionate and proactive about culture. It has invested and been very visionary about culture and regeneration. So even though the Exchange isn’t funded particularly by Manchester City Council, we are funded by the Association of Greater Manchester Authorities. It feels that what we do is valued and its impact is valued by the council. I feel incredibly fortunate to be making work here. Some of my colleagues in other cities have a far bigger struggle and have seen their local council funding cut beyond all recognition, and it’s starting to have a big impact on the work that they’re able to make and the ambition that they’re able to have.”

While the Royal Exchange has been an integral part of Manchester’s theatre scene since 1976, Manchester is home to a number of more recent theatrical and cultural bodies, including HOME and the proposed Factory. Some existing arts professionals might be nervous about the competition. Not Frankcom.

“The outlook is incredibly exciting. One of the things that is very different about Manchester is that there’s a collegiate atmosphere and way of working among all of those organisations. It’s in everybody’s interest that we all thrive. It’s very clear that each of those organisations is going to offer audiences something very different. If we’re confident with what we all do then there’s more than enough audience to go around.”

Despite all this, there is still the London-centric press to contend with. What does Frankcom think is the future?

“I can’t ever see a day where there isn’t that bias in the way that culture is reported. The important thing is that Manchester, rather than feeling like the little sister or brother [to London], is being brought up in a totally different family. We seem to be written more about journalists who aren’t from the UK more than we’ve ever been. I suspect that’s the way forward.”

I hope she’s right. While it’s lamentable that the so-called ‘national press’ are unwilling to cover anything cultural more than a London taxi ride away, perhaps the future is a global interest in the incredible work being done in this part of the UK. Time will tell.

By Helen Nugent

Main image: Sarah Frankcom directing Maxine Peake in The Skriker. Photo by Jonathan Keenan.


For information about the Royal Exchange’s new season, click here