The stuff of life
Sexual betrayal, urban decay, brotherly love bordering on incest... Michael Billington sees the triumphant return of Peter Gill
Michael Billington, The Guardian, 3 June 2002
It happens to Shakespeare in Stratford and Shaw in Canada. Recently it also happened to Beckett and Pinter in Dublin. Now the latest beneficiary is Peter Gill at the Sheffield Crucible. All are, or have been, the subject of festivals devoted to their work. It's a liberating idea and one that should be extended to other dramatists. Edward Bond, Caryl Churchill and Arnold Wesker leap to mind as deserving the kind of extended debate that only a festival can bring.
The advantages are obvious: you can trace the growth of a writer's work instead of seeing it in isolation. You can also set it in its specific theatrical context. The Gill season comprising the brand new Original Sin in the Crucible and four plays in the Studio kicked off with a 30-minute talk by his friend and contemporary, Nicholas Wright. Mixing anecdote and analysis, Wright outlined Gill's dual career as writer-director, talked of his political passions and asked why, if he's so brilliant, he isn't more famous. Wright concluded: "It is a fact that the media and public, very reasonably, like a certain clearcutness about the people they celebrate. And Peter Gill is a mass of contradictions."
After seeing three of his plays Kick For Touch, Mean Tears and Small Change - in a single day at the Crucible Studio, it also struck me that he is a writer who makes fierce demands on his audience. He avoids linear structures. He plays around with time. He leaves certain events undefined. Instead of providing the once-obligatory nut of message, he allows the audience the dignity of choice. As Wright said: "He's done the work. It is for you to judge."
But, seeing Gill's work in bulk, another idea struck me. We associate his kind of formal innovation the juggling with time, the ambivalent motivations with bourgeois settings and subjects: the films of Alain Resnais and Michelangelo Antonioni, the novels of Marguerite Duras and Alain Robbe-Grillet. What makes Gill so striking is that he applies technical experiment to the world of Welsh working-class families. Only one of the three plays, Mean Tears, is middle-class metropolitan. In the others, Gill breaks the inherent snobbery of art by showing that working-class lives are just as fragmented, memory-haunted and unresolved as those of the bourgeoisie.
Kick For Touch, written in 1983, is a classic case. Two working-class Welsh brothers, Joe and Jim, seem to have been fighting a lifelong battle over Eileen. She married Joe while also loving Jim. But Gill is not playing elegant variations on the eternal triangle or even offering a jaunty Truffautesque portrait of a sexual threesome. His real point is that Joe and Jim, separated in childhood, use Eileen as a means of expressing their fierce, quasi-incestuous love for each other. "You care more for him than you care for me," Eileen tells Joe and the truth dawns that fraternal bonds are stronger than sexual passion. Played around a simple kitchen table, Josie Rourke's production makes a shockingly visceral impact as you watch Ruth Gemmell's fine-featured Eileen destroyed by the twin battering rams of Matt Bardock's Joe and Justin Salinger's Jim.
There are obvious influences at work on Gill, specifically DH Lawrence and Harold Pinter. But the world he creates on stage is still recognisably his own, one in which Cardiff working-class life is filled with guilt, recrimination and memories all rendered with an expressionist freedom of time and space. You see this at its richest in Small Change, dating from 1976, in which Gill explores the tensions between two sons and their mothers in a post-war world of economic hardship where Churchill and Bevan are equally despised.
Private and public worlds magically intersect. At the heart of the story lies the sense of sexual betrayal felt by the demanding Gerard at his abandonment by the more emotionally casual Vincent who has joined the Merchant Navy and got married. But personal unhappiness is echoed by images of urban decay and economic exploitation: houses, pubs and terraces disappear, young apprentices in the docks are asked to do a man's work while serving a seven-year enslavement.
Yet the idea of vanished community is evoked in one unforgettable theatrical image: the two mothers played in Rufus Norris's production by Susan Brown and Maureen Beattie dance together in the soft twilight.
The play is not perfect. Gerard, played with smouldering Celtic intensity by James Loye, lapses once too often into prose-poems describing the pitted Welsh landscape. But his big climactic scene with Damian O'Hare's Vincent hits just the right note of hoarded anger. And the play emerges today as a genuine rarity in British drama: a work that balances private passion with public fury at the wanton destruction of communities and the waste of young lives.
Mean Tears, written in 1987, is the odd man out an anguished metropolitan comedy, although one dealing, as so often in Gill, with ownership, guilt and betrayal. It is about the unreciprocated passion felt by the corduroyed, working-class Stephen for the self-absorbed, dope-filled, sexually dithering Julian. It certainly gives the lie to the charge that Gill lacks humour.
But the play cries out for editing. one speech about a woman being a "hockey-field Venus" makes the same point five times over. And for once Gill spells out his theme by talking about "the legacy of romanticism": the assumption that self-propelling, sub-Byronic figures like Julian demand our attention even though they haven't a shred of literary talent.
Even if it lacks the white-hot intensity of the other two plays, Mean Tears still adds to our portrait of Gill. It reminds us that he is as obsessed as Rattigan by the imbalance of passion, the idea that in any relationship one person always feels more intensely than another. Gill is also a dramatist unafraid to deal with sex, class, politics and the quotidian aspects of life while using the stage as an empty space open to limitless possibilities. Individually his plays are impressive. Seen together, you realise the exact nature of his contribution to modern British drama. He has shown that the experimental and the realistic are allies rather than enemies.
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