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Theatre, Dance and Comedy

Image from Manchester Archives & Local Studies
Elizabeth Gaskell

Staging Mrs Gaskell

It’s where Manchester’s booming cotton wealth was traded. So where better than the Royal Exchange building to perform Elizabeth Gaskell’s humanitarian story about class conflict in industrial Manchester?

Mary Barton

  • Mary Barton runs from Weds 6 Sept to Sat 14 Oct
  • The book by Elizabeth Gaskell has been adapted by Rona Munro for the stage

The 19th century was a time of huge social upheaval. Manchester, riding high on its position as the world’s first industrial city, spawned a comfortable middle class of mill owners and their families. But what of the thousands of mill-workers who lived in poverty and declining conditions?

This social inequality was the inspiration for Knutsford-born writer Elizabeth Gaskell. Her first novel Mary Barton tells the story of a working class family in which the father, John Barton, lapses into bitter class hatred. It was also a major factor in the growth of Chartism and their demands for workers’ rights.

Sarah Frankcom
Sarah Frankcom

For the first time, Gaskell’s story is brought to the stage as it opens the Royal Exchange’s 30th anniversary season. To find out more, we spoke to director Sarah Frankcom:

Why have you decided to stage this at the Royal Exchange?

"I read it when I was at University and enjoyed it very much. But it was only when I started work at the Exchange that I realised how significant it was to the Exchange building in particular. The story is so much about what made Manchester in the industrial revolution – from the people who ran the mills to those that worked in the mills. It felt that to acknowledge the hardship and poverty that the working people went through was a powerful thing to be doing in our base."

So give us a brief outline of the story?

"I feel very excited and humbled by it, actually. I just hope we do it justice. But I think that Mrs Gaskell would be pleased with where we’re up to!"
Sarah on how she thinks Elizabeth Gaskell would react to Mary Barton

"Mary is a 19-year-old girl working as a seamstress in St Ann’s Square. It starts with the deaths of her mother and brother in a cholera epidemic. It really traces the rise of the Chartist movement through a strike that’s broken. At the centre of it is a love triangle – she’s torn between whether she should take a decent life with her childhood sweetheart, but she has her head turned by Harry, a mill-owner’s son who wants her as her mistress."

Does Gaskell’s sense of social justice come across?

"She was absolutely aware of what working conditions were like and how mill-owners should take greater responsibility for the conditions that they were employing them in. I think the catalyst for her writing the book was the death of her only son from a childhood disease. In some way, she felt a connection with working people who were losing children all the time because they couldn’t afford to feed them."

What about the Royal Exchange building’s role in all this?

Kellie Bright as Mary Barton
Kellie Bright as Mary Barton

"The fact that the Exchange building was built and funded by mill-owners at the time, there’s something to me quite important about recognising the extremity that thousands of working people endured in order to make Manchester a premier league industrial city. And there’s something about re-connecting the Exchange with that path, as opposed to the mill-owner’s path, that seems quite relevant."

So why should the people of Manchester go and see it?

"Because it’s a good old-fashioned love story! At the centre of it is a heroine who is quite a flawed heroine who sometimes behaves selfishly. But it’s a journey of her growing up and coming to understand that she can have certain choices in how she wants to lead her life."

Has Elizabeth Gaskell’s talent as a writer and champion of the working classes been recognised?

Image from Manchester Archives & Local Studies
The Royal Exchange in 1855

"Mary Barton was one of the biggest factors in changing legislation because it was a way for MPs who didn’t have industrial constituencies to read about the conditions [in the cotton mills]. It was considered to be authentic and people like Frederick Engels claimed it to be authentic and from first-hand experience. He was in Manchester at exactly the same time and was involved in the same circle of friends and thinkers. It was published anonymously at first but it caused such a stir that she had the courage to claim that she had written it."

So what’s it like for you to be directing this very first stage adaptation?

"I feel very excited and humbled by it, actually. I just hope we do it justice. But I think that Mrs Gaskell would be pleased with where we’re up to!"

last updated: 01/09/06
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