Life is sweet
Peter Gill used to think that British theatre had no place for him. What a difference a few months makes.
by Lyn Gardner, Guardian, 27 May 2002
Death becomes playwrights, and the younger you die the better. If you totter on writing into middle age you will almost certainly go out of fashion. But Peter Gill is an exception. Now 62, the Cardiff-born writer and director, who made his name at the Royal Court in the 1960s, is enjoying the kind of exposure that is generally accorded only to the very young or very dead.
Earlier this year, Gill's last play, The York Realist, about the love affair between a young male director and a farm labourer, transferred from the Royal Court to the West End. Last autumn he directed an acclaimed production of John Osborne's knotty drama Luther at the National Theatre. His latest play, Original Sin, about a beautiful 1890s street boy turned socialite, gets its world premiere at the Sheffield Crucible this week, directed, like all Gill premieres, by the author himself. And rather than offer just this taste of Gill, Sheffield is is presenting an entire smorgasbord: a major retrospective of Gill's plays. To enjoy that kind of accolade in the theatre is rare enough; to enjoy it while you are still alive is almost unheard of.
So what is it that makes Gill so special? "As a writer he is a kind of English Chekhov, with all the heart," says English Touring Theatre's Steven Unwin. "As a director, he knows that the play and the acting are the thing. He loves actors, which is rare among British directors, and he is fanatical about casting. He is a paradox. He can be really controlling as a director but there is no director in the world who has more loyalty to his actors. They love him for it."
A few years ago Gill clearly felt out of kilter with the times, angrily denouncing the insidious effect of the musical upon theatre culture (Gill calls it Sondheim syndrome), theatre's decline since the 1960s, and the cult of the rewrite. But there is nothing like success to mellow a man. Today Gill is so merry and mild-mannered that when I ask him how he feels about the fact that the Royal Court originally turned down The York Realist (the theatre only took it on in a production by English Touring Theatre), the smile never falters. "Well, the Court didn't turn it down in a nasty way and you have got to remember that theatre works by those kind of creative mistakes. Since things worked out it would be most ungracious to complain." He adds with a twinkle: "I have decided that there is no point in being too angry about things."
Just as The York Realist and Original Sin are set in worlds on the cusp of momentous transformations, so Gill's career has been buffeted by the winds of change. In 1964 George Devine, the artistic director of the Royal Court, recognised the young actor's talent and gave him a job as an assistant director. Gill stayed at the Royal Court for over a decade, making his name with revivals of DH Lawrence's plays. He also found his own voice as a playwright with The Sleeper's Den, his 1965 play that drew heavily on his Welsh, working-class Catholic upbringing.
For decades Gill cut an unusual figure as both a writer and a director. That dual role did him no favours when it came to public recognition. "I think people are now more forgiving of writers who also direct," he says. "It is a great advantage to have had that experience as an actor. It is one of the reasons why the Almeida was so good under Jonathan Kent and Ian McDiarmid. They knew about acting first-hand. It is why someone like Michael Grandage, who was also an actor, has the edge."
Grandage, who is overseeing the Gill festival in Sheffield, has another theory why Gill's plays went out of fashion in the late-1980s. "There is often something tender about Peter's plays, and the period when we had few Gill plays was not a gentle time politically or in any other way. He didn't respond to the period, and the period didn't respond to him. It is a reflection on us, not on him."
Gill looks back with enormous affection on his time at the Royal Court, when he was surrounded by people such as Lindsay Anderson and Bill Gaskill. "You were made to feel special. I was very lucky compared with the young directors of today. It is all so promiscuous now. At the Court I had the chance to develop within a moral aesthetic. It does you good to be with a group of people whose work you admire. You learn from them and then you can reject their values when you are ready."
No less part of theatre history is Gill's tenure at London's Riverside Studios, which he founded in 1976. Under Gill, the Riverside became a magnet for young artists and a venue for memorable productions, such as his landmark 1978 staging of The Cherry Orchard. But with the election of the Conservatives under Thatcher the following year, Gill knew that the writing was on the wall. When Peter Hall invited him to join the National Theatre in 1980 he accepted. And in 1984 he started the National Theatre Studio, setting up the model of closed readings, cast to the hilt with the very best actors. This offered opportunities to develop plays and show them to other managements such as the Bush and the Court; arguably, this made Gill the founding father of the new-play revolution of the 1990s.
All did not end happily at the National, however. When Richard Eyre succeeded Hall as boss, he swept away the private fiefdoms, and although Gill kept his job, he no longer felt at home. "Richard had a different approach to management. More Birtist. But I didn't like the way the National was going. It seemed to me that people were more ambition-led. Ambition is essential, but it is what you are ambitious for that matters. Tony Richardson [the director, who was also at the Royal Court in the 1960s] was ambitious, but he never hid behind realpolitik. All those little phrases that are used to justify shabby behaviour."
Gill says he could no longer work in the bureaucratic environment of the modern theatre. Yet the current wave of interest in his work suggests he is still a force to be reckoned with. His unfashionable belief that people should behave well whatever the conditions under which they operate, and that slapping on a musical doesn't encourage charabancs of working-class people to give up East Enders in favour of a night at the theatre, are reasons enough to cherish him. As is his insistence - demonstrated in The York Realist, which puts homosexuality in the heart of the family - that gay men don't just exist on a Saturday night.
Some people have accused Gill's plays of being small, but they are miniatures of huge emotional scope. One might just as well call the plays of Chekhov small because they concentrate on the domestic lives of people living in Russian backwaters at a certain point in history.
As Grandage says: "People see Peter's plays and they can relate them to their own lives. They watch them and feel as if the playwright knows them. I recall a friend coming out of Certain Young Men and saying: 'That's funny - Peter Gill must know the same person that I know.' "
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