Peter Gill, playwright and theatre director
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Peter Gill on directing The Voysey Inheritance

Echoes and influences

April 2006

Director Peter Gill talks to Jonathan Croall about a timely revival of a great 20th-century play.

When Harley Granville Barkerís The Voysey Inheritance was first staged at the Court theatre in 1905, it was hailed as a masterpiece of the new drama. A century later, director Peter Gill says it has more than stood the test of time. ĎOutside Shakespeare, I believe it ranks with anything in the theatrical canon,í he says, as we talk during rehearsals. ĎI thought it an astonishing play when I first saw it, and I think it even more so now Iím working on it for the National.í

The central story, with its echoes of Hamlet, concerns Edward Voyseyís efforts to deal with the consequences of his fatherís corruption. Mr Voysey, a well-respected lawyer, has for years been cheating his clients by secretly and successfully speculating with their capital. Having revealed his shady dealings to his son, who is also his partner, he dies. This leaves Edward struggling with his principles as he tries to decide whether or not to carry on with the fraud.

The play established Barker as one of the foremost dramatists of his time, on a par with Shaw. But he also achieved fame as an actor, a manager, a ground-breaking Shakespearean director, a theatrical innovator, and the moving spirit behind the campaign for a National Theatre.

Peter Gill speaks warmly about his influence and achievement; ĎHe was the first in the British theatre to have the idea of a repertory company. The notion of a serious, modern theatre, with all the component parts coming together, rather than some kind of directorís version of the actor-manager. Itís what George Devine tried to do later in the 50s and 60s, also at the Royal Court.í

He believes The Voysey Inheritance is Barkerís best play. ĎIíve read all his others recently, and although Waste and The Madras House are extraordinary, I think this is his finest achievement. Itís more than just a play about one manís dealing with his fatherís fraudulent legacy: itís also a portrait of a comfortable section of the upper-middle class, the professional classes, the administrators of empire, that Barker captures brilliantly.í

Like Barker, Gill started out as an actor. He too is an acclaimed playwright, his plays including Cardiff East (staged at the National), Original Sin and The York Realist. He has also been an influential figure within British theatre generally, first as an associate director of the Royal Court, then as the founder director of Riverside Studios, and later as an associate director of the National and founding director of its Studio.

As someone who has also adapted The Cherry Orchard and The Seagull, he has found echoes of the great Russian dramatist in The Voysey Inheritance. ĎItís almost Chekhovian in the way Barker keeps fifteen characters in play,í he suggests. ĎItís a wonderfully composed play, moving as it does between sustained duologues and group scenes. Itís most diligently made, and yet brilliant.í

At a moment when corruption and scandal have returned to the centre of British politics, a new production of a powerful play about clandestine financial skulduggery could hardly be more timely. Inevitably there have been conversations in rehearsals about relevant current events. But The Voysey Inheritance is not essentially a political piece of theatre, as Peter Gill is keen to point out.

ĎItís not a Shavian play, itís not a tract, itís a much more deeply explored portrait of a particular group of people. You never quite know what Barkerís politics are. But the play has a resolute poetic truthfulness. Itís well written without being deliberately aphoristic, itís a poetic play without poeticisms. The theatre of Wilde is there, but he doesnít go down that road. And yet itís very malleable, warm writing.í

Heís delighted with the casting of the Nationalís production, which stars Dominic West as Edward Voysey and Nancy Carroll as Alice Maitland, with Julian Glover playing Mr Voysey. ĎDominic has a wonderfully warm, confident and demonstrative quality, which very much suits how Edward turns out in the end. Nancy is a fascinating, unusual actress, stylish but natural, who identifies easily with the bold kind of young woman that Alice is. And Julian has just the right blend of power, authority and humour to play the buccaneering Mr Voysey. Iím very lucky to have them.í

Rehearsals, he says, have been demanding but satisfying. ĎThe text of the play is very dense, and the wonderful duologues are quite long. So itís time-consuming work, but very rewarding. The number and the complexity of the relationships mean you find something new in it every day.í

© National Theatre 2006

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