Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

Peter Gill Birthday Milestone

Peter Gill

Tribute to Unique Author-Director , Theatre of Wales and Britain , September-12-19
Peter Gill by Tribute to Unique Author-Director I was for long a beneficiary of Peter Gill and did not know it. Arrival in London for my first serious job was a let-down, the accommodation greatly crumbier than that which I had left 120 miles away. London, with small resemblance to the city of 2019, was in long-term decline, its population shrinking by a thousand-plus every week.

But it was still London. My neighbourhood had three cinemas- all long gone- and evenings were brightened by the opening, just along the road, of a redundant BBC studio as an arts venue. Riverside was its location and Riverside was its name.

Peter Gill was at the helm and it was a new-style all-purpose arts centre, open all hours, cheaper and cooler than the West End. The performance space was up-close and direct. I saw Peter Gill's “Measure for Measure” from a front seat on the floor. Helen Mirren as Isabella came as close as a metre away. That is the way to see acting. The next year a cast of twenty performed “Julius Caesar” grippingly.

I continued, on and off, to be a beneficiary of Gill in theatre. There was a “Juno and the Paycock” to stun at the Lyttleton. “Tales from Hollywood” had Gambon, Whitelaw, McDiarmid as Brecht at the Olivier. The first Sam Shepard I saw was Gill's “A Fool for Love”, in the Cottesloe, with Ian Charleson and Julie Walters. The gap was then long, until the work in Wales in a new century.

Michael Billington was author of a tribute to his contemporary. In excerpt:

“...Gill is one of British theatre’s unsung heroes as both a writer and director. Yet his record is remarkable. Among his 18 plays, The York Realist has achieved the status of a modern classic. As a director, he rescued DH Lawrence from theatrical oblivion, established the Riverside Studios as a major venue and turned the National Theatre Studio into the building’s invaluable engine room. His influence on British theatre has been profound.

“It would be easy to stick labels on Gill and define him as Welsh, Catholic and gay. But, while those elements are all important, what most strikes me about Gill is his belief in the ultimate seriousness of theatre: something that stems from his early years at the Royal Court and that permeates him like the brand name in a stick of rock.

“...Gill made his debut as a director with a production at the Court of DH Lawrence’s then unknown A Collier’s Friday Night. It was so outstanding that Gill went on in 1968 to revive the complete Lawrence trilogy of mining plays. What I remember is the clarity of the productions and what Gaskill called Gill’s ability “to take a piece of human activity and focus on it with such care that it acquires a luminous life beyond its function.

“...Today, directors are increasingly judged by their ability to reimagine plays...Gill belongs to an older tradition that not only respects a writer’s text but also seeks to find a style appropriate to the play. A classic example would be his 1984 revival of Otway’s Restoration tragedy, Venice Preserv’d, at the National Theatre. On the one hand, he encouraged his lead actors – McKellen, Michael Pennington and Jane Lapotaire – to perform with the gestural flourish appropriate to a late-17th-century work. At the same time, he brought out the homoeroticism that lay behind the play’s revolutionary politics.

“...Many fine plays – including Small Change, Kick for Touch and Mean Tears – followed, but it was with The York Realist in 2002 that Gill finally achieved the recognition he deserved. It is a breathtaking piece that, dealing with an affair between a farm worker and a metropolitan director during a production of the York Mystery plays, shows the stranglehold on English life of class, culture and roots. It also confirmed Gill’s great strengths as a writer and director: his emotional power, his social awareness and his ability to find rich meanings in the daily business of life.”

Phil Morris met Peter Gill in London prior to the opening of his adaptation of “Uncle Vanya” for Theatr Clwyd and added to the career. In excerpt:

“Gill’s theatrical career is one of the most distinguished of any Welsh artist. He first worked as a jobbing actor before becoming a director. At the Royal Court he rescued a trilogy of plays by D.H. Lawrence from literary oblivion and made them part of the modern repertory. It was at the Royal Court that he also directed two of his own early plays,The Sleeper’s Den and Over Garden’s Out. In the mid-seventies, he was appointed the first Artistic Director of the Riverside Studios, where in addition to staging his own celebrated version of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard he commissioned works from the likes of Athol Fugard and Tadeusz Kantor.

“...I was at the Welsh college. In those days it was based in the Castle, and some of the boys, including Tony Hopkins – who was in the year above me – had digs there. It wasn’t a drama school in the way people understand it now. We simply put on lots of plays. But in Britain at that time, there were a lot of wonderful German and middle-European movement teachers, including Laban who taught in Bradford. Rudi Shelly was a similar figure at the Bristol Old Vic, and he came across to Cardiff and taught us several times. I performed a bit of Hamlet for him, and I could tell in some signal that he gave me – which is what education is all about – that acting was something that I could do. I only met Shelly a few times, but that gave me confidence.”

“I wrote a letter to the Court and was invited to do a general audition for its casting director Miriam Brickman. I got a job understudying in Willis Hall’s The Long and the Short and the Tall, which Lyndsey Anderson directed, and I took over one of the parts when it transferred to the West End – the other understudy incidentally was Michael Caine. I also did a few one-off Sunday nights at the Court, often in small roles, including the first ever performance of Arnold Wesker’s The Kitchen. At the same time, I had a room in a house owned by George Devine’s wife. I also did an acting job for John Dexter at the Lyric Hammersmith. So I came to know those who made the Court famous, people like Tony Richardson and my good friend Bill Gaskell. Gradually, I became part of the world of the Royal Court. It suited me temperamentally.

“By then, I was much more interested in what was going on at places like the Court and Stratford East, under Joan Littlewood. I was at the RSC briefly during Peter Hall’s tenure, and acted in a very interesting production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle directed by Bill Gaskell. He was a tough, analytical director. He had us do all these improvisations and through that I became fascinated by the process of directing”.

Links below for Gill in Wales

2017: Gill's adaptation for the lauded “Uncle Vanya” directed by Tamara Harvey

2012: Gill's production for National Theatre Wales of “A Provincial Life”

Guardian tribute at:

https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2019/sep/04/peter-gill-at-80-british-theatre-the-york-realist-national-theatre

Peter Gill in long interview with Phil Morris at:

https://www.walesartsreview.org/peter-gill-in-conversation/

Photo Credit: Linda Nylind/ Guardian

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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