Any number of things act as deterrents to theatregoing. At present, the lingering impact of COVID—fear of infection travelling to or while attending the venue—is high on the list. Safety precautions—the need to wear masks or take lateral flow tests—might put off anyone except those wanting to signal their determination to support the arts. In the past, I’ve taken umbrage at being searched when attending shows.
Joint Artistic Directors of Manchester’s Royal Exchange Bryony Shanahan and Roy Alexander Weise believe the building in which the venue is sited and associations from its past usage are putting off potential customers. The building was historically connected to the Transatlantic Slave Trade and its architecture is perceived as elitist, imperialist, too posh, like a museum, dominating, intimidating or a symbol of arrogance almost mocking those who enter.
Having attended the Royal Exchange regularly since it opened, I have to say I have never experienced any of those feelings despite having a massive inferiority complex prompted by poor education and a working-class background. But then my relationship with theatres is purely utilitarian—regarding them as places of entertainment rather than assessing their architectural merit or historical baggage. True, a venue like The Swan in Stratford-on-Avon is particularly lovely and it is fun to attend The Globe just for the experience, but I'm afraid my concerns about theatres are remarkably narrow-minded: acoustics, sightlines and leg room. As far as I’m concerned, directors should not be allowed to take radical action until they’ve proved they can get plays to start and finish on time. Philistine.
However, the Artistic Directors intend to address their concerns in a practical manner working with artists from a wide variety of art-forms on the Disrvpt programme: a series of special events seeking to disrupt the equilibrium of the Exchange’s Great Hall.
The opening event is Holding Space, a poem by Keisha Thompson. The poem is free of judgement and condemnation, more concerned about pondering the paradoxes inherent in The Exchange. Elegant wordplay around ‘suspend’—suspending disbelief or belief or suspending the theatre module within the building. Inviting the audience to consider if they would have been welcome in the building during its previous use as a place of trade and the incongruity of a theatre sited within a former authoritarian structure. Holding Space becomes, therefore, a celebration of the irony and contradictions of The Exchange.
Keisha Thompson’s recital, like the poem, is neutral. There is no vocal intonation to push the audience to one viewpoint or another. The lengthy pauses are more to allow the audience to consider the points made than for dramatic effect.
The spoken poem is accompanied by Yandass Ndlovu’s choreography. The dance is performed in The Exchange’s foyer / hall rather than on stage which limits Ndlovu to dancing in place, twisting and turning her arms and trunk, and prevents leaps and bounds. Interpreting poetry through dance is never easy and it is difficult to link Ndlovu’s movements to the verse except for the occasions when she stops dead still as if struck by a particularly powerful point.
Holding Space is a strong start to the Disrvpt programme. With the programme, the Royal Exchange is making an effort to secure its future by widening its audience base. It is a strategy not without risk. Existing audiences may not see the appeal of the programme and, after a pandemic during which the habit of theatregoing may have been broken, may need more traditional offerings to tempt them back.