Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre explores its past links to colonialism and slavery

The concept gets under way this week with a Manchester artist exploring the darker colonial chapters of the building’s history.
The Royal Exchange Theatre. Photo: Andrew BrooksThe Royal Exchange Theatre. Photo: Andrew Brooks
The Royal Exchange Theatre. Photo: Andrew Brooks

A Manchester arts venue will set out this week on a new programme of work intended to alter people’s views of the well-known building.

The Royal Exchange Theatre is launching Disrvpt, which aims to change how people think about the Great Hall in which the spaceship-like culture hub sits.

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And it is starting on Thursday with Holding Space, a project created by Manchester artist Keisha Thompson which plunges back into some of the more murky aspects of the Exchange, exploring its links with colonialism, empire and slavery.

What is Holding Space?

Holding Space will launch on Thursday (21 October) evening when Keisha, who is from Whalley Range, will recite her poem in the Exchange.

She will be accompanied by performers from Greater Manchester directed by Nimmo Ismail.

At the same time an installation by artist Alison Erika Forde, which will remain on display for 12 months, will be unveiled.

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Alison is from Wigan and has been exhibiting her work around the city-region since graduating from Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU).

The poem and installation will begin to explore some of the complexities of the history of the Exchange, a former major trading hall in the city.

The Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester. Photo: Andrew BrooksThe Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester. Photo: Andrew Brooks
The Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester. Photo: Andrew Brooks

The building was particularly associated with the trade in cotton, which was grown by enslaved African-Americans on plantations, and the products created from it.

The starting point for the project was the artistic directors of the theatre being handed a photograph of the Exchange at work in its 19th century commercial heyday and realising the full picture of what was going on in the image.

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Some artefacts of that era, such as the trading boards, are extremely familiar to today’s Mancunians as they can still be seen in the building.

Holding Space will begin Disrvpt’s aim to bring all the complexities and difficulties of the Royal Exchange’s past to audiences.

What has Keisha Thompson said about the work?

Keisha said: “When approached by the theatre to write this Disrvpt poem, I was immediately on board.

“I was vaguely aware of the history of the building. I knew it needed to have light shed on it. I knew it would be complicated. And I knew it would be emotional.

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“Nevertheless, it was a privilege to be asked as an artist and a Mancunian to delve into the rich history of the building - to come up with something that will hopefully speak to a wide range of people.

“For inspiration I homed in on the idea of suspension due to the architecture of the main theatre space. I had to approach it as a page poem in my head, then deal with how it would manifest as a physical thing or a performance later.

Manchester artist Keisha Thompson. Photo: Elmi AliManchester artist Keisha Thompson. Photo: Elmi Ali
Manchester artist Keisha Thompson. Photo: Elmi Ali

“Now I’m at the stage when I can think of those things and again, I’m reinvigorated with excitement. The goal I set myself at the beginning was to come up with a beautiful confrontation. I hope it does the trick.”

Keisha said she is always very keen to open up conversations around topics which are considered hard or taboo.

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In preparation for Holding Space she visited the building, including the basement archives, did research online and using books from the archive and spoke to Marianne Elliot, daughter of one of the five original directors of the ‘70s theatre.

She said that during the creative process she had important conversations with the theatre’s leadership team about the multiplicity of truth.

She said: “No one person can hold the full the story so we have to ‘hold up’ our ends from our perspectives and be willing to piece them together with other people’s to get a better appreciation of our joint heritage.”

The life of a Manchester artist

Keisha developed a love of the arts at an early age, speaking about encountering ballet, choral music and other types of culture while still a pupil at St Margaret’s Primary School.

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The school also prided itself on teaching colonial history, meaning Keisha became aware of the slave trade and Manchester’s part in it while she was still young.

Keisha Thompson. Photo credit: ApeNinjaKeisha Thompson. Photo credit: ApeNinja
Keisha Thompson. Photo credit: ApeNinja

Her first major commission was for the Urbis gallery’s Emory Douglas exhibition in 2008, which involved her getting to meet the artist aged just 18 and then creating work in response.

Her work has been presented at the likes of Tate Modern, Blue Dot Festival and the British Council Showcase in Edinburgh while her output includes an award-winning solo show, Man on the Moon, her debut book Lunar which featured her poetry and mini-albums Moonwhile and Ephemera.

What has the Royal Exchange Theatre said about Disrvpt?

The theatre hopes that by disrupting the equilibrium of the Great Hall over the next year people will interact with the space and its stories and history in a different way.

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Joint artistic directors Bryony Shanahan and Roy Alexander Weise said: “When we arrived as artistic directors we were given a picture of the Great Hall.

“It had a very particular story to tell, one of wealth and power, and one with its roots firmly in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Royal Exchange Theatre artistic director Bryony Shanahan. Photo: Benji ReidRoyal Exchange Theatre artistic director Bryony Shanahan. Photo: Benji Reid
Royal Exchange Theatre artistic director Bryony Shanahan. Photo: Benji Reid

“We instantly knew how important it was to dig beneath the surface of this image, to find and tell the hidden stories and develop creative ways to reimagine the hall for today, for everyone.

“Forty-five years ago, the space was disrupted by a spaceship-like structure, a home for incredible theatre that shifted the building’s story, and today we want to interrupt that space again, exploding out of the module and spilling into every corner of the Great Hall, asking who are we now and making space to create a new picture that reclaims and reflects the Royal Exchange today.”