Peter Gill: the angry director
Kate Kellaway, New Statesman, 21 November 1997
I met Peter Gill at his flat in Hammersmith, near the Riverside Studios which he founded in 1976 and ran for several years. He is one of the grand old — or, at 58, middle-aged — men of British theatre. In 1980 he became an associate director at the National and during his time there founded the National Theatre Studio. Now Gill is his own boss and his latest production, Tongue of a Bird by the young American writer Ellen McLaughlin, is playing at the Almeida Theatre.
Gill lives at the top of a house that is just right for a director of vision. It is intensely theatrical, with a blue plaque like a beauty spot on its left cheek, announcing that it once belonged to George Devine (the man responsible for turning the Royal Court into a writer' s theatre). Standing in the middle of the sitting room is like being on a ship, there is a feeling that at any moment one might set sail. Out of every window, you can see the Thames, near and wide. Inside there is disorganised beauty: bright furniture, tangerines, pretty blue and white teacups, dishevelled books.
Gill has an intense face and marvellous eyes of an indeterminate colour. His conversation is beguiling but distrait, a conversational ring-a-ring of roses in which one idea seizes the hand of the next with the likelihood that a single distracting thought will serve as the sneeze that brings the whole lot down. But as a director Gill is anything but disorganised. His production of Tongue of a Bird has all his hallmarks. He makes complexity deceptively simple and lucid. He is not phased by more than 20 scene changes or flustered by the fact that much of the action happens in the air, in a small plane. He solves these matters with elegant sang-froid.
Gill has never planned his career. He says he would not know how. He makes a doleful boast, saying that he is always being asked to do plays that no one else will touch. But he adds that he has also never done any work in his life that he has not wanted to do. For years he pretended not to write, although actually he has been, for most of his life, a playwright (with eight performed plays to his name). He says that as he gets older he gets angrier. He uses the word "annoyed" frequently — and at times his element seems to be gripe water. His views on theatre tend to be austere (he recently wrote a fuming diatribe against musicals). And he has many other axes to grind. The first axe is himself, the second, a star system that celebrates egos above good work. He also dislikes interfering writers, despairs at "sinful public accountability" and laments that there is "too much power in the hands of too few". He observes that British theatre has a wonderful knack of selecting people who are willing to be marginalised and sees himself as someone of this sort. After he left the National he suffered "huge self-doubt: I wrote for two years."
But he says now: "I didn't come all the way from Cardiff to be displaced by all these people from Cambridge."
Gill might seem a natural author for Look Ahead in Anger but he has a benign side that would cancel out any bile. Born in Cardiff in 1939 to Catholic parents, he has drawn loosely on his upbringing in some of his plays. When I ask him what he is writing at the moment, he seems unsure of how much to give away. "I've just finished something. It is all male, based on Wedekind's Lulu. It sounds awful, I know. I don't think anyone is going to put it on."
He reflects on this for a moment. "It's not naughty enough," he says sadly.
Gill does, I think, know his own worth but is — disarmingly — anything but pleased with himself. I say that I especially liked the notion in Tongue of a Bird, borrowed from the pilot Amelia Earhart, about needing to show courage in order to be rewarded by life. Did Gill agree with this? He said he did but felt that he had never been able to get the necessary courage together.
If I understand him correctly, he is gay himself but against camp excess in the theatre. He shakes his head at the thought of over-the-top "queening". ("Neil Bartlett is a very nice boy but ...") On the other hand, he protests that he is less of a purist now than he once was.
What is most impressive about Gill is his sense of theatrical time. He knows a good work can be done in a short time and that it can be done on a tight budget, but he is quick to add: "You can work on a shoestring but the shoe has to do up."
When I ask him what he wants to do next, I can't untangle his answer. It is like a long, over-knotted shoestring.
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