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Obituary: Manchester Royal Exchange co-founder Braham Murray

Braham Murray. Photo: Mia Rose

One of the hardest working and most influential British directors of the past 50 years, Braham Murray was the last surviving member of the core triumvirate that established the Royal Exchange, Manchester, in the 1970s and 1980s, and made it internationally renowned.

With the directors Michael Elliott and Casper Wrede, as well as the designer Richard Negri and actor James Maxwell, Murray installed the company he’d set up with Elliott and Wrede, 69 Theatre Company, in a makeshift theatre – what one would call a “pop-up” today – in the vast but disused Royal Exchange building in the centre of Manchester in 1973.

The popularity of their temporary theatre resulted in a decision to build a unique, seven-sided auditorium in the round within the Great Hall. Weighing 150 tonnes, this high-tech module is suspended from four of the Great Hall’s massive columns, leaving only the ground floor seating and stage area to rest on the floor. It is the largest – and arguably the weirdest – theatre-in-the-round in the UK.

Murray directed the opening production, Sheridan’s The Rivals, at the new theatre, with a cast that included Patricia Routledge, Tom Courtenay, Trevor Peacock and Lindsay Duncan. He was to work many times with Peacock and Courtenay, notably on the musical version of the comic strip Andy Capp, which premiered at the Royal Exchange in 1982, with music by Alan Price.

He directed Peacock and Max Wall in Waiting for Godot at the Royal Exchange in 1980, and Courtenay as Uncle Vanya in New York in 1995.

Murray was born Braham Goldstein in north London during the Second World War. He began acting and directing at Clifton College, Bristol, and carried on through his university years at Oxford in the early 1960s.

While still at Oxford, he co-devised and directed Hang Down Your Head and Die, a Joan Littlewood-influenced satirical show about capital punishment, which opened at the Oxford Playhouse in 1964 and later transferred to the West End and Broadway. Overnight, it put 22-year-old Murray on the theatrical map.

In 1965, he became artistic director of Century Theatre (now renamed Contact), resident company at the University Theatre, Manchester, which also toured, and persuaded fellow directors Elliott and Finnish-born Wrede to come in as guest directors. In 1968, the three men formed the 69 Theatre Company together – Murray was by far the youngest and least experienced of the trio – and started looking around for a permanent base in Manchester.

They were joined by American-born actor Maxwell and designer Negri, who were to play an important role in establishing the Royal Exchange Theatre. Negri, who was trained in engineering as well as art, based his design for the new theatre on a beehive, the idea being that no one would be more than 30ft from the stage.

Murray said being part of the team that created the Royal Exchange was the single most exciting experience of his life, even if he did often feel like the junior partner. He was always proud of the theatre’s record of producing work that was audacious, subversive and classy. The company produced 77 premieres in 25 years. He said: “If a theatre isn’t causing controversy, isn’t at the cutting edge, it’s nothing.”

He also boasted that the Royal Exchange “worked better than any theatre I’ve ever been to anywhere in the world”.

His last big Manchester production was a collaboration between the Royal Exchange, the Lowry and the Halle Orchestra on a highly acclaimed revival of the Bernstein musical Wonderful Town in 2012. Bringing together three of the city’s cultural behemoths illustrated Murray’s determination to settle for nothing but the best.

Sarah Frankcom, the present artistic director, said the Royal Exchange, was “built on the foundations of his tenacity, creativity and vision”. She described him as “an artistic director of inestimable talent and ideas”.

Braham Sydney Murray was born on February 12, 1943, and died on July 25, 2018.

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