Peter Gill, playwright and theatre director
Peter Gill-The Plays
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Peter Gill — The Plays

After your death you were better have a bad epitaph, than their ill-report while you live. Hamlet Act II Scene 2

It sometimes seems as if Peter Gill’s plays are one of the best-kept secrets of the British theatre. If the subject comes up in a group of actors, writers, designers or directors, everyone turns out to have their own particular favourite. For some it’s the passionate rivalry between the two brothers in Kick for Touch, for others it’s Mrs Harte and Mrs Driscoll dancing together in Small Change; or Julian in Mean Tears asking restlessly Is this shirt OK?; or the three generations of women nested in bed together in The Sleepers Den; or the two boys perched on the window sill with the evening light behind them in Over Gardens Out, or Michael’s explanation of the world in Cardiff East. The experiences differ but are linked by their intensity and by a strong sense of personal connection.

Here goes another day. Let’s get ’em all out of it. Let’s have a sit down. That’s the way I think. It’s wrong I know. And when they’re gone, I get lonely. But as soon as they’re in again, I think, Oh, Christ, why don’t you all go out and leave me alone. Mrs Harte: Small Change

Part of the plays’ intimate appeal lies in their sense of people coping, not in some sentimental put-upon way, but simply getting through the day, managing, making the best of things — the dailiness of life in the enormous complexity of actual living. Some of what is to be coped with is external joblessness, lack of money or social opportunity, but perhaps the greater struggle is with emotions — fears, obsessions, needs, and inherited demands.

Oh Mrs Harte, I felt as if I didn’t exist. I kept looking out of the window but I couldn’t work out how it could be possible. It’s easy to say so now because although I think it I don’t feel it, if you can take my meaning. And the line and the line post and everything. Well the truth to tell I got very frightened, so I locked the bedroom door and I lay down on the bed. Mrs Driscoll: Small Change

Side by side with those characters who are managing to cope (more or less) are a group of others who are disintegrating or have disintegrated — Mrs Driscoll in Small Change, Shirley in Cardiff East, Mrs Shannon in The Sleepers Den. One of the characteristics of this writing is the ability to enter the personality of someone who is failing apart. This delineation of extreme psychic frailty helps give Gill’s work its particular tone and the presence of such frailty in the plays is like an undertow, which exerts its pull on all but the most robust characters. Sometimes Nature herself seems to share this feeling, Gerard in Small Change looks out of the train and sees: field after field after field, all shaking with nerves.

Vincent: You ought to be a Catholic

Gerard: I would be if I wasn’t one.

Small Change

Gill’s Catholic upbringing also brings its flavour to the writing. It shows not just in the characters’ social and ethical concerns but in their wit, their repartee, and their refusal to let each other have the last word. (it was after all the Catholic Church, which invented the position of the Devil’s advocate to ensure that the opposing viewpoint could be fully dramatised.)

Dear Daddy, I hope you are well, that you are in good health and that it’s all right where you are. Dear Daddy I wish you were home. Dear Daddy, I wish you could come home for good. I hope I’ll get another postcard again. We all got our cards and we hope you got ours. Lots of love, your son till death — John Vincent O’Driscoll. Vincent: Small Change

From little Maria in The Sleepers Den hiding behind her comic to escape her mother’s growing distress to Anne-Marie and Ryan in Cardiff East who take refuge next door to get away from their parents’ quarrels, Gill’s plays are full of children. Just as there is a strong sense of the adult characters having had parents (and having to deal with what the parents handed down to them), so Gill is careful to show how present entanglements have their impact on the next generation. From the teenagers in Over Gardens Out to the quite small babies in Cardiff East Gill shows childhood as a vortex of adult emotions, anxiety, sexual possessiveness, obsession, terror, seduction and moments of sheer weightless bliss.

Whose face did my grin start on? On whose face will it end? Gerard: Small Change

This strong feeling of connection between generations means that Gill is often writing what are in effect history plays (though not in any fashionable sense). The presence of history is perhaps most overt in Cardiff East, which as its title suggests takes a place and shows us a group of people living there — pensioners, forty-somethings, twenty-somethings, teenagers, school age children and babes in arms — everyone with their different aspirations and experience of the world. On one level, history for these characters has been reduced to material for a pub quiz — Alfred Sisley was married in Cardiff - but on another level history is the very fabric of people’s lives. The sense of time and community is overwhelming. Small Change tries to chart a connection between the immediate post-war and the revolutionary hopes of the late sixties and early seventies; Mean Tears catches perfectly the mixture of heartlessness, self-obsession and despair that characterised the late 1980’s. In each of these plays Gill includes characters (Michael, Gerard, Stephen) who as well as living the experience are also trying to interpret it and give it an intellectual dimension.

He is concerned with the whole of life since the particular is unsatisfying. — with the particular because the whole of life cannot be focused into vividness. William Gerhardie on Chekhov

The three godparents that stand behind these plays are Anton Chekhov, D.H. Lawrence and Samuel Beckett. Gill has long had a particular affection for Beckett, (especially the short works such as Eh Joe, Play and All That Fall); his second play A Provincial Life is based on and extrapolated from a Chekhov short story and his version of The Cherry Orchard is the best rendering of Chekhov into English that there is, capturing perfectly the sense of Mayakovsky’s remark that "Chekhov’s language is as precise as "Hello" and as simple as "Give me a glass of tea." and of course his production of the three Lawrence plays at the Royal Court Theatre in 1968 is now legendary. But it is the combination of the three influences that is so creatively interesting. Imagine Beckett and Chekhov without Lawrence, or Lawrence and Beckett without Chekhov, and the mixture is immediately less vivifying.

I want to paint men and women with that something of the eternal, which the halo used to symbolise, and which we seek to convey by the actual radiance and vibration of our colouring. Vincent Van Gogh

The desire to transfigure the ordinary and in doing so to rescue it from the condescension of the cultured classes was shared by many theatre artists in the period after the war — and not just at the Royal Court Theatre. Joan Littlewood’s actors returning from active service couldn’t see why they had to revert to playing comic servants on the fringes of middle class plays and set out to create work in which they would occupy centre stage. In the same way Mrs Harte and Mrs Driscoll are two ordinary Cardiff housewives yet they stand - like Hamlet — at the centre of their own consciousness and that of the play.

Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show. Charles Dickens: David Copperfield

It is natural for the painter to speak of the vibration of our colouring but for the playwright it is not pigment but dialogue that has to be full of vibration. Gill’s dialogue is unhurried, witty, faithful to the moment, yet capable of great lyric power. His writing has as its defining qualities a refusal to over-dramatise and a way of never looking at life as if it were only a problem. His work at its best creates the sensation that what is being conveyed is not some idea (still less some abstract theory) about experience but simply and directly experience itself.

John Burgess


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