Arts: Pushing for a more open Gate

Shape of Arts to Come: No 2: Theatre: For Mick Gordon, the 27- year-old artistic director of one of the country's most innovative fringe venues, the future of theatre lies in fully exploiting its unique potential to communicate ideas. By Paul Taylor
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Theatre-hating has, in the past 20 years, become a lucrative sideline for those journalistic pundits who are ever ready to trot out their wishful obituaries of it. Last year produced a classic of this genre. "Putting on new plays," declared the literary editor of the Evening Standard, "feels about as astute as using a horse and cart for haulage, or having an operation without an anaesthetic. The theatre is an anachronism preserved by piety, subsidy [and] tourism." So the art form evidently has a cheek even entering the 21st century; to speculate about its future is to hazard guesses about the continuing operations of a fraud.

Such reasoning is breathtakingly defective - a fact I appreciated more after an evening spent discussing the theatre of tomorrow, and his own plans for it, with Mick Gordon, the 27-year-old artistic director of the Gate in Notting Hill, London, and the figure from this emerging generation who will, in my opinion, be making the biggest waves in the British theatre of the 21st century. From a Northern Irish Protestant background, evident in the strong accent that gives his conversation a constant rising note of incredulous delight, this engagingly open young man arrived at the Gate last year via a first in history from Oxford, a bursary at the National Theatre Studio and the prestigious mentorship of this century's greatest director, Peter Brook.

Running this fringe venue, you earn a princely pounds 130 per week and you have next to no funding. What you do have is complete artistic freedom and, as Gordon comments, "the knowledge that the large theatrical institutions look to the Gate to take the biggest revitalising risks". He laughs that literary managers send him plays saying: "This couldn't be done on the [vast] Olivier stage, the cast is too huge, but you could do it at the Gate." The place has traditionally thriven on that kind of paradox (and the generosity of actors who work for free), conducting dazzlingly imaginative experiments with space so as to be able to pack its repertoire-shaking discoveries (the glories, say, of Spanish Golden Age drama) into its very intimate dimensions.

Since taking over, Gordon has demonstrated an enviably wide range, directing pieces as diverse as the British premiere of Brian Friel's Volunteers, which was full of intricate, psychologically detailed ensemble work and stunningly perched the audience round an archaeological dig, and an abstractly staged version of Wilde's Salome at the Riverside.

Securing this job was a smart career move. It launched Stephen Daldry, who went on to become a vibrant and visible head of the Royal Court. But into what kind of theatrical climate will it catapult Gordon, whose already buzz-making tenure will soon straddle two millennia? The vulgar assumption of that Standard article is that there is the same kind of "progress" in the arts as there is in the world of technology and medicine and that certain forms are doomed to become as obsolete as bloodletting and the bustle. But with theatre, you could argue - as Gordon does - that the exact opposite is true. "The faster that technology makes it possible for people to work from home and never leave their monitors, the more theatre will reassert its ancient role as the place where people go to be reminded of what it is to be human and fallible and to want to share in a collective experience that makes demands on them.

"The fallacy in the Standard piece is that theatre is just one way of telling a story that can now be related more efficiently via the electronic media, whereas the meaning of a theatrical event is inseparable from the living ritual of collaboration between actors and audience."

Gordon's list of forthcoming projects vividly illustrates his passionate belief in theatre's unique potential. His millennium plans centre on a production of Aeschylus's Prometheus Bound. The image of man's champion against the gods, forced to confront his own history as he writhes, chained to a rock, at the outermost edge of the world is, for Gordon, a potent symbol of mankind's position at the edge of the century. But in this production, Prometheus and his rock will be suspended from a giant industrial crane so that he can be swung across the audience in a big outside venue. To test the received wisdom that it's the comparatively high price of theatre seats that deters young people, the idea is to apply for lottery money to make the occasion free for the first 500 people who turn up every day.

This emphasis on theatre as an extraordinary, unpredictable, site-specific event will be felt, too, in the punningly titled "Gate Crash" project scheduled for next year in which, on Sunday nights and on whatever incongruous set happens to be up there, Gordon and gang will annex different West End theatres and do mad things with the work of the great Spanish dramatist Caldern, whose 400th birthday it is. One of the more encouraging developments of the last few years is the way the Fringe and the off-West End have infiltrated and invigorated the West End proper (the Almeida bringing Racine to the Albery, for example). "Gate Crash" sounds like a cheeky, living-graffiti version of that takeover.

The project closest to Gordon's heart, though, is the one that opens this week. Intimate Death is a piece developed from the book of the same name by the psychologist Maria de Hennezel, about her work in a Parisian hospital for the terminally ill. The staging is not a play but a series of encounters and it illustrates Gordon's philosophy par excellence. Woody Allen once said that he wasn't afraid of dying, he just didn't want to be around at the time. Hennezel contends that, properly cared for, the dying can live with unparalleled intensity to the final moment and be a lesson to the survivors. Why make theatre of this? Because, says Gordon, this non-literalist medium is matchless at embodying paradox - can present, say, a woman dying of a neuromuscular degenerative disease as the mobile, full-of-life creature she still is in spirit. The book is about physical presence, and so is theatre.

Gordon is a visionary but he has none of the priestliness that can often accompany that and, unlike many of the select breed, he is prepared to work with living playwrights (he'll direct a play by Gary Mitchell at the Court in March). He's very much his own man, his youth giving him the licence, he says, to play naughty grandson to Peter Brook, thus avoiding "the pressure of being his children" felt, he thinks, by the proteges now approaching their forties: Simon McBurney, Deborah Warner and Katie Mitchell. He has arrived at a moment when the farcically fast rate of technological change has begun to provoke an imaginative resistance that theatre can exploit. He occasionally thinks hard about becoming a psychologist. My bet, though, is that the future of the British stage and the future of Mick Gordon will be fruitfully linked for a long time to come.