Peter Gill, playwright and theatre director

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The people in the foyer were saying "But that's my life."

As the Crucible gears up for a Peter Gill Season, Michael Grandage explains why he has so much time for the playwright

by Michael Grandage, The Independent on Sunday, 26 May 2002

In 1980 I worked for a year in the ICA box office while auditioning for the drama schools. During that time, I made enough contacts with other box offices to get around the London theatre scene without too much financial strain. While I was at Central School of Speech and Drama between 1981 and 1984, I would regularly see about five or six shows a week. This swiftly introduced me to the curious power of the theatre. It seemed possible that at any one performance someone sitting in seat G13 could be having their life changed and the person in G14 could be losing the will to live. This made each visit to the theatre one of joyful anticipation.

Within the space of one week, early in 1983, I saw Rex Harrison in Heartbreak House, a new play called Crystal Clear at Wyndhams, a Doug Lucie play at the Bush, Tom Courtney in the musical Andy Capp and then on the Saturday afternoon I sat down in the Cottesloe Theatre to watch a play called Small Change, written and directed by Peter Gill. I'd already had a few years of excited theatre-going, but that afternoon I was the person in seat G13 having my life changed.

For the first time, I was so absorbed by character that I became unaware of the actor. Direction, design and lighting all appeared to inhabit the same world. That afternoon, I watched a story about the friendship and heartaches between mothers and sons that seemed, through its poetic language, to be speaking directly to me.

This is a common and interesting occurrence with Gill's work. I have heard people in foyers after his plays say, "But this was my life." I even heard one very angry theatregoer at the Almeida after a performance of Certain Young Men scream to his friend "He must know about us."

There are certain recurring themes throughout his work but you clearly don't need to be Welsh, working class, Catholic or gay to experience the exciting phenomenon of watching a little part of yourself come to life on stage. It's the mark of a great writer. His tough and exquisite use of language has the ability to tap into something beneath the surface in all of us. I began eagerly to await a new Peter Gill play as most people now await the next Harry Potter book.

For many, the recently acclaimed production of The York Realist was a valuable reminder of Peter Gill work as a playwright. At the Crucible in Sheffield, we are about to embark on one of the most ambitious projects ever undertaken in the theatre's 30-year history. The next four weeks will see a festival of work devoted to this celebrated writer and director. We are presenting the world premiere of his new play Original Sin, directed by Gill himself, alongside a retrospective of four of his other plays, as well as a series of talks, master classes and exhibitions.

Ten years after seeing Small Change, I met Gill for the first time. He auditioned me for a play he was about to direct for the RSC. The meeting took place at the Riverside Studios (where Gill was once artistic director) and I remember wanting the job so badly that I could hardly speak with nerves. It was a good play and a good part, but the opportunity to work with Gill was the real draw. He immediately wrong-footed me by asking for a different speech to the one I'd prepared. I started, and after just three words he stopped me and questioned a stress I placed on a word. I went back and did it again. This time, he stopped after five words and suggested a different stress for another word. And so it went on. I never got to read the entire speech. It was the most frustrating audition I'd ever had.

Needless to say, I didn't get the job. The lasting effect of our meeting was to look at every line of every play in a different way. Start with the text, then go beneath the text and then address what the text doesn't even say. You can act all three. But it's harder work.

The next time we met I was ready for him. He was reviving A Patriot for Me. It was a much better audition and this time, I got the part. Unfortunately, I was already starting to focus my sights on directing so I declined the offer. But we talked a lot that day and we've gone on talking ever since.

I'm aware that my 12 years as an actor observing great and not so great directors was the most wonderful training a young director can have. I sometimes regret that I didn't take the chance to watch Gill at work in the rehearsal room. But at least I have his plays. And I guess it has been enough to work out how and why they work their particular magic. I hope we can give anyone who comes to Sheffield over the next four weeks an opportunity to do the same.

  • Peter Gill Festival: Crucible Theatre, Sheffield (0114 249 6000), to 22 June

 

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