Colleagues at the Cottlesloe
by Sheridan Morley, The Times, 21 September 1985
Director-designer teams are not exactly new to the theatre: across the last half-century Tyrone Guthrie and Tanya Moiseiwitsch, George Devine and Jocelyn Herbert, Peter Hall and John Bury among many others have all established the virtues of that particular artistic partnership. But few can ever have undertaken a season quite as ambitious as the one which reopens the Cottesloe stage of the National on Monday: for the next two months, that theatre will be exclusively occupied by a festival of 10 new plays all designed by Alison Chitty and under the overall direction of Peter Gill, in whose National studio they have been developed.
Gill and Chitty have been working together now for the last seven years; they first met, as Alison recalls, 'when I'd decided I wanted to start a new life after Stoke-on-Trent and put some work into an exhibition at the Riverside Studios. Peter was in need of a designer for Measure For Measure and we've been together ever since, first there and now at the National'.
It was of course that Measure For Measure, along with The Cherry Orchard and The Changeling, which established the Riverside as a venue for high-class classical work of a kind that was then being done by neither the RSC nor the National. 'I suppose it was a little curious to open there with The Cherry Orchard, given that Chekhov is not normal community arts-centre policy' says Gill, 'but then an arts centre, like a studio, can be all things to all people'. And a studio is what he is now most concerned with: in the reorganization of National directors and responsibilities that took place last November, Gill agreed to detach himself from the main building for a while and go to work (in an Old Vic annexe that had been loaned to the National by Ed Mirvish) on the first-ever NT studio. There, with Alison Chitty and a team of directors and writers led by John Burgess and Nicholas Wright, he has set up a timetable of classes and experimental sessions and workshops some of which have led to the present Cottesloe season.
According to Gill, 'The Cottesloe season reflects a part of what we have been developing in the Studio over the last nine months, but there's much more to it than that. We've been running master classes in voice and movement, looking at the nature of documentary techniques in design and photographs, and starting a sequence of young-writer projects.
'The National has never been reluctant to do new plays, but it seemed important to establish that the door really was wide open and that you didn't have to be an established writer to get a new play staged there. We've been running monthly 'studio nights' in the Cottelsoe until it had to close after The Mysteries, and there young writers were beginning to see their work staged. When the GLC gave us a grant to reopen it seemed important to continue that work.'
Gill himself will be directing seven of the plays, which include a one-actor of his own as well as his adaptation of Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, but he sees no real conflict there: 'I happen to be a writer as well as a director, and as I am working for the National it would be ludicrous to take my work elsewhere. I also think that teachers who don't do it themselves are not always that good as teachers: when I was starting out as a writer, there was a whole tradition of Sunday-night rehearsed readings which has more or less vanished from the London theatre now, and that's one aspect of our work at the studio.
'There are experiments and workshops going on there all the time, at least until our present grant runs out next April, and the New Writing initiative continues. This doesn't mean that all the writers have to be under eighteen, nor that new work for its own sake is necessarily a good thing. The plays also have to be very good, and they have to exist within a certain artistic frame.'
The frame, more often than not, is of Alison Chitty's settings. 'I think I probably take up more of a designer's time than most directors, and since Measure I have not done a play without Alison, although she of course works with other National directors from time to time. But a lot of my work starts visually rather than textually, and I need a colleague to work with right from the very beginning. I think we share a certain moral outlook which is reflected in the plays we are doing. The first of the Cottesloe plays (The Murderers by Daniel Mornin) is set in Belfast, while the second (True Dare Kiss by Debbie Horsfield) is about growing up in Manchester. Then we've a play about the Kent miners' strike, and five one-acters all set in very different areas of London.
'Running through them all is a strong figurative, expressive element; they are not merely naturalistic, but they do seem to inhabit the same world and I think they say a lot about what is going on at the Studio. The problem is where we go from here: we can't continue to occupy the Cottesloe beyond the middle of November, and nor would I want to. But we have to find a way of showing our work to the public on a regular basis. That bridge, from a Studio to a Theatre, is the hardest of all to build. Or to cross.'
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