Peter Gill, playwright and theatre director
Nicholas Wright's lecture
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Peter Gill

by Nicholas Wright

Opening lecture at the Peter Gill Festival, Wednesday 29 May, 1pm-2pm, Crucible Studio Theatre, Sheffield

The first thing to say is that putting on a Peter Gill Festival is one of the best producing ideas in years. It shows an admirable disregard for the fact that he isn't a household name and a more than admirable regard for the beauty and integrity of his work. I don't think anyone in the British theatre would dispute this.

I first heard of Peter in 1959 through a friend of mine at Drama School, Harriet Devine. Her father, George Devine, had recently left home and, in the wake of this, her mother, Sophie, had taken Peter on as a lodger: he was then a young actor whom Harriet had befriended when they were both dressers at the Lyric, Hammersmith.

Sophie would encourage her daughter to ask her friends around on Sunday afternoons to her beautiful, shabby 18th-century house on the bank of the Thames in Hammersmith, for those loose, warm gatherings of young people which lonely parents enjoy. Sophie would bake a cake, serve tea and do the washing-up. This last task took her most of the afternoon, and nobody could ever quite work out where she got her seemingly endless supply of dirty crockery from: it seemed to come from nowhere and end up nowhere, to the point where we began to suspect her of washing the same plates many times over.

Peter, when I met him there, was 20. He was thin, wiry, black-haired and bright-eyed, very attractive both because of his looks and because of the packed electric energy which emanated from him. Very talkative, highly opinionated, very good at organising complicated parlour games. Politically he was combative. As a colonial boy, I was both baffled and excited by his assaults on private education, or his outrage at some media slur on a trade union. He was a radical who could never have joined a movement: that, in a way, is the most basic thing you need to know about him.

Sophie adored him. In the '20s, she, her sister Percy and a friend had formed the theatre design group Motley, which introduced simplicity and a kind of unforced elegance into the theatre of their day and she was still a working designer. A lot of what I will say about Peter will point up the contradictions in him, and this is one: he was a theatrical subversive who nevertheless had a love of the theatre which Sophie had helped to form, the (by then) unfashionable art theatre of Michel St. Denis, Komisarjevsky and John Gielgud. "Oh what shall I do?" she would say on a Sunday evening. The designs for something or other were due the next morning and she couldn't think of a thing. "Don't worry, Sophie," Peter might say: "What about an ankle-length white dress with a pink rose-bud in her buttonhole and a straw boater, like you did for Angela Baddeley in 1937." Sophie would lick her brush and draw. He was an excellent actor, but often out of work. The RSC took him on, in the first days of the Aldwych. But as a mouthy, non-Cambridge intellectual, derisive of theory of any kind, the RSC wasn't his place. And acting at all wasn't really the job for anyone so controlling.

His connections at the Royal Court were excellent: there was Sophie, there was Tony Richardson, living at the top of the house in an extravagant flat populated by iguanas and toucans. And Peter's best friend was Bill Gaskill. Clearly Peter would end up at the Court in some form or another: the only question was how and what as. Offers were slow in forthcoming until, for a very short period, he became the Royal Court's press officer, a job for whose emollient demands he was spectacularly unsuited.

For quite a while, he was simply a figure at the Court, someone who didn't demand to be paid except when doing some specific job: assisting on a mainhouse show, or doing a Sunday Night Production without Decor. (If this sounds vague, I ought to explain that in those days it was often very difficult to know whether you were actually working at the Royal Court or not. You obviously couldn't ask, so you had to go to the accountant's office on Friday morning, ask for your pay-packet and see if you got one.) Employed or not, he clearly belonged there.

I joined the Court as Casting Director in 1967, in time to work on Peter's revival of D.H. Lawrence's The Daughter-in-Law, along with A Collier's Friday Night and The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd, making up the Court's Lawrence trilogy. I'd not seen him for a while and never worked with him, and found him very different. Ambitious as he was, he had held off from directing until he felt he was ready to roll. Now, with only a handful of shows behind him, he was obsessed. Reports came in from the rehearsal-room of his maniacal attention to detail, of his springing on to the set to adjust the angle of an actor's hand, the disposition of a prop, the weight of an inflection. What strikes me as odd, after all these years, is that everyone connected with the productions knew exactly what he was doing: he was transforming the dead tradition of kitchen-sink naturalism into a poetic form, one which gave a classic nobility to working-class life.

My memories of the Lawrence trilogy include a run-through on-stage of The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd at which, when the dead miner was washed by his widow and mother, both Bill Gaskill and I blubbed like babies; a particular moment in A Collier's Friday Night, still one of the half-dozen best productions I've ever seen — it was when a marvellous, long-forgotten character-actor, John Barrett, wound up his watch before going to bed — and why was that so beautiful? But it was. And the get-in of Collier, when Peter's assistant, Barry Hanson, and I looked round to see Peter running out of the stalls. We found him in the alleyway, vomiting blood. An ambulance took him to hospital, where he nearly died: his ulcer had burst. Bill Gaskill took over Collier and Mrs. Holroyd and Jane Howell took over The Daughter-in-Law. Both said afterwards that there'd been nothing for them to do bar run the technicals: the work had been done. Bill took daily reports to Peter in his hospital bed. Wired-up and half-unconscious, he was determined that the austere beauty of his shows would not be compromised. There's a scene in Collier where the bread burns in the oven. Bill suggested mildly, or mildly for him, that he was thinking of arranging for dry ice to simulate the smoke. Peter was outraged. "Dry ice?", he croaked through his oxygen-mask. "Who do you think I am? Franco Zeffirelli?"

A year or two later I was in deep trouble, having opened the Theatre Upstairs with three ill-chosen plays, all very badly done. I knew that my next request for a pay-packet was likely to be embarrassing, and I had the sense to realise that my only hope was to get in someone cleverer than myself to help me out.

Peter had just finished a new play: Over Gardens Out. I remember my intoxication at the grace and simplicity of the dialogue. Quite recently I found my diary of that time, and found that I'd written, on a page of its own, the phrase "the beating heart." What I meant, was that Peter's writing had a transparency which led me into his characters' inner lives.

That is how the Theatre Upstairs came to put on the first ever Peter Gill festival, though unlike this present one it contained only two plays: Over Gardens Out and a revival of The Sleepers' Den, with Eileen Atkins. Peter cleared the theatre and brought in beautiful acting, bare walls, white light and open windows. I wish I could show you the photograph of what was in those days an unheard-of moment: James Hazeldene and Don Hawkins as, respectively, the shy Cardiff teenager and the raffish one, sitting in broad daylight on a window-sill with the roofs of Westminster behind them.

Everything after that show went right, for the Theatre Upstairs, if not for Peter. His Duchess of Malfi in the main house was eagerly awaited. There was a cast of sixteen, eight playing principals, eight playing everyone else. Bill Dudley designed it, with a line of salvaged doors up each side and the predominant colour was ochre. In the Lawrences, Peter had played with physical choreography in a realistic context: here there was no realism, instead a formal, almost mannerist, interplay of bodies, faces packed together like a Giotto. The actors were young and incapable of the fruity acting that people expect in Webster. I cannot describe how deeply the show was disliked by everyone except for a few fans. The critics hated it, so did the Royal Court grandees and the audience was mostly not present. All I can say is that I'm sure all the criticisms were very justified, but I'd never seen a show like that before and I've spent the last thirty years looking at bits of it repeated all over the place, in theatre, in opera and in dance. Peter had shot something new into the ether, and it landed. What it cost him was enormous. I've often wondered what it's like to give everything you've got — twice — and to receive two such devastating rebuffs, one from the frailty of your body, and one from the world.

When talking about Peter, there's a potential cause of confusion, which is whether one's describing the playwright or the director. It's a confusion which he has done nothing to dispel. All his plays except his first one have been first directed by himself. A very good director, who I think would quite like to have directed the Peter Gill script he'd just read, complained that since the action was all over the place, and neither exits, entrances nor stage directions had been provided, nobody other than Peter could direct it anyway. This, no doubt, was what Peter intended.

He writes, almost always, about the community he comes from: working-class life in Wales. It is poor, so poor that you have to stay quiet when the rent-man knocks on the door. It is Catholic, it is strong, it is dignified, it is riven with neurosis. It is always underpinned with a profound sense of melancholy: Peter cannot depict the home of his youth without a sense of sadness and loss. These houses will be pulled down, perhaps already have been; the warmest values of the community are most embodied in people who are old and about to die; the gifted son will leave home, will cut the ties, will be forever unable to convey to the people who are closest to him, the enjoyment he gets from success, from books, from foreign films, from smart food. They only underline his distance from them.

Figures re-appear: the mother, often distressed or ill; the friend or the brother left behind, the young couple, the Dad. Their lives are the ordinary ones of marriages, deaths, neighbourly support, men's friendships. But these are all subverted by insecurity, mistrust, betrayal, desire and death. Common to all the characters is a class-based attitude to a social system which they both detest as an injustice, and welcome as a target of their wit.

The poky rooms and the ruined countryside are richly described, though none of these (until The York Realist) are ever shown on-stage. The fabric of the plays (again except for The York Realist) is made up of moments of intense reality, knitted together by association or by train of thought, rather than by the dictates of a linear plot. Gill the director matches this with an expressionist use of the stage: figures from the past exist side-by-side with characters from the present, different spaces coalesce into one, memory nudges its way into actual time, just as as it does in life.

The way the characters speak is obviously a thing of beauty. It's also, less obviously, a political statement. Working-class conversation, with its small vocabulary, its chat, its hesitations, its habitual use of shared knowledge and local references, is made as musical and precise as great prose of the Enlightenment. The working class, in other words, are equal to all the rest. That is the politics of it, and it convinces.

As a director, Peter's effects are bold. But his methods are surprisingly conservative. I remember spotting Zoe Wanamaker, at the bar of the green room of the National Theatre, deep in conversation with Francesca Annis. This was after a rehearsal of my play Mrs. Klein, which both were in and Peter was directing. "Are you all right, Zoe?", I asked, feeling that she probably wasn't. "Well," she said, "It's a very long time since I've been given a line-reading." Line-readings, just to spell it out, are what the director does when he tells an actor exactly how to say a line, centreing on which word to emphasise, not to mention the all-important flick on the final syllable, something which Peter is particularly hot on. Few directors have given line-readings since around 1970, and those who do, reserve them for the odd emergency. Peter gives them all down the page. And it doesn't stop there. In an age when choreographing entrances and exits, or telling the actors how to sit or stand are seen as being a touch disgraceful or undemocratic, Peter stands out as someone who positively revels in unilateral commandment, sculpting the time, the space, the rhythm of the event into an expressive whole: "directing", as it used to be called.

I could recognise a production of Peter's at a five-second glimpse from the back of the stalls. The signs are very different from those which you might expect from a production which has been so sternly overseen by a single mind. I mentioned "sensuousness". Bodies, in Peter's shows, have a sensuous weight. Whether slumped or moving swiftly, they seem both more monumental and more sexy than in life. The figures in space look like the single still which some great photographer has chosen among the thousand he's thrown away. When anyone speaks, you feel the thought has leapt into their mind that moment. Nothing is forced or schmaltzy: it all seems real.

The earliest of Peter's plays to be done here in Sheffield is Small Change. It was first presented at the Royal Court when Robert Kidd and I were running it. Its success, if that's the word, mirrored that of Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party. Audiences were meagre until the Sunday Times review came out, written by Harold Hobson, a very senior critic who, though often quite wrong-headed, had the priceless gift of being able to pull in an audience. Hobson raved and success was assured, the only problem being that, typically, he'd delayed his review until the Sunday before the final week. Still, that week at least was packed. Small Change is a classic Peter Gill play, involving all the themes I've mentioned and one I haven't: the erotic undertow, for good or bad or both, within a friendship between two men. Is Peter a gay writer? Am I? If you're a heterosexual, yes, I suppose we are. Peter revived the play at Riverside Studios, which he ran with great success in the 1970's: this was a theatrical arthouse, to which his associate David Gothard brought an amazing series of European productions and where John Burgess ran a new writing programme to which I owe a particular debt, since two of my early plays were done there. Small Change was revived again at the National when Peter was an Associate Director, along with Kick for Touch. What seemed difficult about this second play when it was first produced — the fragmentation of the story — now seems quite easy to grasp, so canny have we become at creating coherent narrative out hints and allusions. Mean Tears was another Cottesloe premiere, the first of Peter's plays to be set in a metropolitan context. Here his favoured set-up is inverted: in an unequal relationship, the achiever is the moral lodestone, not that it feels that way to him. Friendly Fire is a play for young people, the only commission Peter Gill has ever accepted. Original Sin, a world premiere, is his take on the inexhaustible and enigmatic Lulu plays by Frank Wedekind. Peter assisted on the Royal Court production of Wedekind's Spring Awakening, and it was he who introduced me to the very notion of Lulu in the days when that siren beauty — or that blank screen onto which a series of men project their fantasies — was re-incarnated once a year at the Academy Cinema in the shape of Louise Brooks. "If only Lulu could be a young man," he'd say. And here you are.

If he's so brilliant... and as his plays delight their audiences ... why isn't he famous? It is a fact that the media and the public, very reasonably, like a certain clearcutness about the people they celebrate. And Peter Gill is a mass of contradictions. He is both genuinely self-deprecating and very grand, often at the same moment. He is the most gregarious man I know, whose social life is conducted almost entirely on the telephone. He cannot be persuaded to go to a party, except once in a blue moon, when he is promptly to be found with a circle of admirers around him or dancing his feet off. He's someone who, if you tell him about a show you're doing, will tell you who to cast, how to stage it and — this is the point — exactly how to explain to the world just what you're doing and why you're doing it. But he will not do this for himself. He has an enormous store of worldly wisdom, which stops at his own doorstep. He does not, can not, present himself to the world in conceptual terms. And that, as Peter himself would tell you, is the key to fame.

He never explains. He certainly never apologises. Ask him about a play you don't quite get, and he'll reply: "Oh don't ask me. I've no idea." With a raise of the eyebrow, meaning "Believe that if you like." He's done the work. It is for you to judge.


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