Mystery becomes the realist
By Alastair Macaulay, Financial Times, 9 March 2002
Peter Gill playwright, director, guru is something of a British theatre institution. Since the 1960s, he has played an important role in several of British theatre's best-known institutions: the Royal Court, Riverside Studios, the National Theatre, and others. No, he's not especially famous, but within the world of British theatre his name is spoken with a certain awe. There are actors and directors and playwrights who consider themselves his disciples: they feel their work is forever stamped by lessons they learnt from him.
This year, his play The York Realist now opening at the Strand Theatre has won him a new kind of attention. If you think that annual awards matter (I don't), then you may already have been impressed by predictions that it will be a candidate for Year's Best Play. More seriously, it's generated a buzz that's surprising in a play that is in no way radical. Simply, it is a play with an inner life, a play that creates a world one believes in, a play that preaches no message but gets people talking.
Now in his early 60s, Gill has white hair, blue eyes, and a toughly intelligent manner. Borrowing someone else's room to talk to me at English Touring Theatre's offices, he soon puts his feet up on a desk, and gradually his torso slides lower, his feet higher. His opinions come spilling out pell-mell: he leaves more brilliant sentences unfinished than most people will ever start. He talks fluently of Sophocles ("Antigone is the greatest play I've ever directed"), of Chekhov ("The Three Sisters is the greatest of all plays, but I haven't directed it yet"), of centuries of German, French and English drama, of music and dance. He takes the self-made man's pride in the fact he had no university education. He speaks with fierce dismissiveness of this opera company, that senior critic, this famous actress, that leading playwright, and only just remembers to ask me not to repeat these opinions as he goes along. It has been said of him that he has no sense of humour, and certainly his eyes seldom twinkle as he applies his tough wit to this or that aspect of theatre. Still, I find myself laughing at many of his remarks. And he fills a conversation with energy, with an abundance of fertile ideas about history, culture, and theatre.
Gill grew up in Cardiff, and that's where he discovered theatre. And dance. "When I was 14, my best friend and I decided I don't know why to go and see the Royal Ballet when it came to Cardiff. We saw Fonteyn and Somes dance Ashton's Symphonic Variations, we saw Violetta Elvin dance Le Tricorne with the Picasso decor. To me, Ashton's Symphonic Variations and Tudor's Dark Elegies are two of the very greatest work of British theatre, ever." He speaks dismissively of the recent vogue for "physical" theatre, but with excitement for the work of Merce Cunningham.
I ask him how long he has had the germ of The York Realist in his head; he replies "About 10 years." Yet the play's roots go back further. Gill set out as an actor, and a crucial part of his education occurred at the Royal Court in the 1960s. At the Court, in his mid-20s, he came into contact with the directors George Devine, John Dexter, Tony Richardson, Lindsay Anderson, and William Gaskill. In his 1988 autobiography, A Sense of Direction, Gaskill wrote: "No one quite remembers how Peter Gill arrived in our lives. He was suddenly there like a changeling. Black-haired, skinny, a dock-worker's son from Cardiff, he fastened like a succubus on John Dexter and me. He was too highly strung to be a good actor and wanted to direct."
Gill insists that The York Realist is not autobiographical, but admits it has its connections to his own experience. Set in the early 1960s, its protagonist is George, a Yorkshire farm labourer. As one of the amateur players in the York mystery plays, George finds love with John, the production's young assistant director. Isn't part of this Yorkshireman George surely drawn from the Welshman Gill? The world of wonder that the young Gill discovered from watching ballet and theatre in Cardiff certainly finds an echo in the way George talks of his experience in amateur acting, and of visiting theatres in London. But George chooses to stay in Yorkshire he's a realist in his knowledge that he is too old to change his life and follow John to London and in that sense he is certainly non-Gill. It's the character of John that has a plainer connection to Gill. For in 1963 he worked as Gaskill's assistant on the production of the mystery plays at the York festival.
At the Royal Court, Gill started to write plays (The Sleepers Den, 1965) and he started to direct. In particular, he started to re-write British theatre history when he introduced the then unknown plays of D.H. Lawrence to the theatre. "I've always said, Lawrence's plays would have been a success if only each one of them had featured a parasol! But they're just about working-class people who aren't proving any social agenda.
"I took the courage to stage A Collier's Friday Night from George Devine. He simply said 'I'd like to see it.' I don't want to sound sentimental about him, but such was the respect he commanded at the Court that I thought 'Well, if George says that, then I don't feel so scared in trying to direct it.'" Then, during Gaskill's regime as artistic director, Gill staged further Lawrence plays. He saw that A Collier's Friday Night, The Daughter-in-Law, and The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd were a trilogy, and this Lawrence trilogy became one of the peaks of the Court's work in the 1960s.
The York Realist is dedicated to Gaskill. Partly this is a reminder: though Gaskill's autobiography contains a whole chapter on Gill, it scarcely mentions that Gill is a playwright. Now Gaskill will not forget. The play's George-John relationship is certainly not based on that of Gaskill and Gill. But its world contains something of the Gill-Gaskill 1963 collaboration in the York mystery plays, and something of Gill's Lawrence trilogy too.
George's Yorkshire world is clearly akin to Lawrence's Nottinghamshire world, and so is his close relationship with his mother. The point Gaskill made of Gill's Lawrence trilogy, "His great strength is his ability to take a piece of human activity and focus on it with such care that it acquires a luminous life beyond its function," is also absolutely true of The York Realist. Here, as there, the ritual of a man washing himself after work becomes an important theatrical event in itself.
"I learnt from watching the Berliner Ensemble, and from the early work of John Dexter, that there are stage actions that must take the time they take. Most directors and actors concentrate obsessively on characterisation. But that way you forget density the texture that actions onstage can have. If you shape the life that things can have onstage, then you give them an eroticism of their own. There's much about The York Realist that I couldn't discuss before the first reading, and there's still much I can't discuss now a play has its mystery but I always knew it would have a physical life. I always intended there to be a counter-life in the kitchen beyond the living-room."
The "York realist" of the title has a double meaning. Yes, George is a realistic Yorkshireman; but "the York realist" is also the way that Gill and others refer to the anonymous medieval author of the York mystery plays. Gill's study of those mystery plays in the 1960s led him to understand one source of strength in the tradition of British drama. In the 1970s and 1980s, he was the founding artistic director of both the Riverside Studios and the National Theatre Studio, generating a great deal of theatrical energy in both places, and it was at the latter he commissioned Stephen Unwin to direct Goethe's play Torquato Tasso. Unwin is now the artistic director of English Touring Theatre, which is presenting The York Realist, and he has recalled how Gill, during his Tasso period, joked "If it hadn't been for the York realist, Shakespeare would have been a third rate playwright like Goethe."
When I ask Gill about this, his eyes get as near to twinkling as they ever do. He explains to me that he doesn't seriously mean that Goethe was a third rate playwright. But then he speaks of Shakespeare's Richard III (he has recently been discussing it with the director Michael Grandage, who is currently preparing a staging of the play, and whose Sheffield Crucible Theatre will present a Gill season later this spring), and he refers to the murderers' scene. "You can hear straight away where it comes from in the mystery plays. The scene for Christ's Torturers was written by the (Nail-)Pinners, and they wrote of crucifixion as something they knew practically how to do. Almost the last line King Lear says is 'Pray you, undo this button.' Can you imagine Racine's Ph่dre saying anything so workaday let alone at such a point?"
And so English drama has always had the great strength of a strain of realism, of observed reality. With The York Realist, Gill puts himself at the end of a long and honest tradition.
The York Realist opens on Saturday March 9 at the Strand Theatre, London WC2. Tel: 0870-901 3356.
His story so far
Peter Gill (born in 1939 in Cardiff) started his professional life as an actor. While working at the Royal Court Theatre in the 1960s, he became both a playwright ('The Sleepers Den', 1965) and a director. His staging of a trilogy of plays by D.H. Lawrence was one of the high-water marks of the Court's history, and introduced Lawrence's plays to the theatre after decades of neglect. In the 1970s, he became the founding artistic director of Riverside Studios: there, he not only presided over considerable energy from writers, directors, and actors, but also helped to launch Dance Umbrella.
During Peter Hall's regime as artistic director of the National Theatre, Gill became founding artistic director of the National Theatre Studio: this, in turn, became a dynamo of creative energy. His own new plays have been presented by the Royal Court ('Over Gardens Out', 1968), the National Theatre ('Kick for Touch', 1976, and 'Cardiff East', 1997), and the Almeida ('Certain Young Men', 1999), and he has directed numerous productions of plays new and old for the Court, the Riverside, the National, the Royal Shakespeare Company, and others. His new play 'The York Realist', presented by English Touring Theatre, opened in January at the Royal Court and is now transferring to the Strand Theatre in the West End. Later this spring, the Sheffield Crucible will present a season of his plays.
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