Peter Gill, playwright and theatre director
Peter Gill interview
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Full Speed ahead

Peter Gill directs a West End Mamet revival

From Time Out, March 8-15 2000 No 1542

Mark Strong, Kimberly Williams and Patrick MarberAn interview with Peter Gill — once an actor, sometimes a director and always a writer — isn't exactly focused on why readers of Time Out should go and see his production of David Mamet's 'Speed-the-Plow'. Not for him the soundbites; rather, as an unreconstructed defender of the puritanical, rigorous values of the Royal Court in the time of George Devine and William Gaskill, he has some delightfully sharp observations on the state of theatre today. There's plenty he doesn't approve of: the National's fondness for musicals; the increasing reliance on sponsorship; directors who abandon serious theatre to make their millions in the West End; directors who fancy themselves as auteurs and post-modernist productions of Brecht. He is, in fact, a one-man attack on all the changes that took place in British theatre in the '80s. He reminds me of Max Stafford-Clark's question in 'Letters to George' — 'How far should the Theatre Manager move to accommodate the taste of the town?' Stafford-Clark went off to start 'Out of Joint': Gill has rather concentrated on his writing. 'Certain Young Men' played at the Almeida last year and his new version of 'The Seagull' is currently in repertoire at the RSC. Now, however, he has been lured back into direction-and even into the grubby, commercial West End — to direct 'Speed-the-Plow' at the New Ambassadors, although he points out that his salary is hardly commensurate with a West End production.

A satire on Hollywood values, 'Speed-the-Plow' was first seen in Britain in 1989 at the National, a momentous production for Mamet in that his future wife Rebecca Pidgeon played Karen, the temporary secretary who tries to persuade her boss to green-light a film about the end of the world. It was the same part that Madonna played on Broadway, ensuring the play was, for a while, a massive hit. This new production had its seeds in a season at the Royal Court in which writers connected to the theatre were invited to stage a reading of their favourite play. Joe Penhall, who has a new play opening at the National this year, chose 'Speed-the-Plow'. The producers of this staging were inspired by the reading to invite Gill to put on a full-scale production, keeping Patrick Marber and Mark Strong in the cast. Perversely, this seems to have appealed to Gill: `Mark and Patrick offered to audition for me, so therefore, needless to say, I said "Don't be silly". It may have been a ruse, but I thought it was extremely charming. Then I just had to find a young woman for this problematic part, which was made no easier by the fact that Madonna had played it first. I had no reason to suppose that Kimberly Williams would be quite so gifted and such an accomplished actress. She is — how shall I say it? — so un-American. She's guilty of none of the things that David Mamet attacks actors for, which are mainly aimed at American theatre.'

Interestingly, given that Mamet has just directed a film of 'The Winslow Boy', Gill describes 'Speed-the-Plow' as having a'Rattiganesque skill in narration', which sets him off on another detour, shuddering as he points out that those people today who think that the Royal Court in the 1950s was harsh on Rattigan and Coward have never had to sit through their entire oeuvre. Nevertheless, it is the well-made aspects of 'Speed-the Plow' that appeal to him, confirmed now by the experience of hearing audiences discuss the play on tour: 'It has an underlying simplicity because it's the story of one man and two people with two scripts. The simple facts of narrative were what I found interesting — the daring of a simple cliffhanger combined with this brilliant, dense and very observed language pattern.'

About the subject matter, he is far more circumspect, discussing the play as though much of it remains a mystery. Prescriptive direction he finds boring and prefers to leave audiences to make up their own minds. 'The greatness of the theatre is that it's a moral form which sometimes exists outside the intentions of the writer. The one thing theatre does have is the power of the audience.' But then, in spite of himself, he does venture an opinion: 'I think it's less about Hollywood than a fear of a certain kind of puritanism. I suppose feminists would be angry about casting the woman in that role and that the men's vulnerability is the main theme of the play. Somewhere in there, there's fear. Because it's both rational and irrational, it makes a play.'

'Speed-the-Plow' previews at the New Ambassadors from Tuesday.

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