Osborne's theatrical reputation has suffered equal setbacks. Recent revivals of Look Back in Anger, The Entertainer and Inadmissible Evidence have shown that his status as a pioneer is not matched by lasting merit. The RSC is therefore taking an enormous risk in reviving A Patriot for Me, his epic play about the blackmailing of a young homosexual officer in the Austro-Hungarian army. It has, however, adopted the best possible insurance policy by entrusting its production to Peter Gill.
Along with Mike Alfreds and Trevor Nunn, Gill must be reckoned one of the country's finest directors, whose sensitivity and integrity issue a constant rebuke to the fashionable, flash tactics of so many of their younger colleagues. His career has encompassed new plays and revivals on the South Bank, at the Barbican and Stratford, and running both the Riverside and the National Theatre Studios. His association with Osborne goes back to the Royal Court in the Sixties, where he received his theatrical training under George Devine.
Gill's first theatre work as an assistant stage manager was on a tour of Look Back in Anger. "I found it the most alarming play. As a 17-year- old, it was all beyond me. Everyone shouting and sophisticated," says Gill. Two years later, he joined the Court itself as an understudy on The Long and the Short and the Tall. "lt seemed to me like a fully fledged theatre, but it had only been going for three years." He knew Osborne, "although I wasn't an intimate. John and Tony [Richardson] were the Stephen Daldrys of their day... the jet-setters. People who were my people were Lindsay Anderson, for whom I was an understudy, John Dexter, for whom I played a small part in The Kitchen, and Bill Gaskill, who was a great friend."
Although not involved in Anthony Page's original production of A Patriot for Me, he worked as his assistant on the premiere of Inadmissible Evidence. "And there's lots of evidence to show that he wrote them in tandem." Returning to the play 30 years on, he finds it a much more fascinating and dense piece than its reputation as a cause celebre might allow. "It is, in a genuine sense of the word, an adult play. It's both elusive and allusive, working with so many characters and ideas. What is attractive to me is that it's all about sensibility and has nothing to do with show. John throws in colour like a novelist, so that the characters often live in other people's scenes rather than their own."
Despite being set during the last years of the Austro-Hungarian empire and showing a society propelling itself towards the First World War, the play is, in Gill's words, "very much about England, class and exclusion. When I directed The Duchess of Malfi at the Court, I realised that the John Osborne person has been around for a very long time and they've never let him in." The most controversial aspect of the play, however, remains its sexual politics... although the cause of controversy has changed. What was shocking in 1965 was the very presence of homosexuals on stage; in 1995, it is, rather, the nature of Osborne's presentation.
In the wake of the recent wave of gay plays, particularly Burning Blue with its trenchant analysis of military homophobia, and in an age where transvestism is no longer transgressive, Osborne's attitudes can seem both offensive and dated. Gill springs to the playwright's defence. "John clearly set about writing a play about a gay man in a sympathetic manner. Like Shaw and Granville Barker, he covers all sorts of areas. He suggests that to be gay is not to be frivolous. He is consciously pointing out that not all gay men like Judy Garland."
Anthony Creighton has claimed more astringently, "I think people should be able to appreciate that A Patriot for Me, which stigmatises homosexuality, is a portrait of his own self-hatred." But while acknowledging that "the projection of self-loathing on Redl's part is almost unbearable", Gill refuses to make an easy identification of writer and character, citing "the number of people I've met in Sloane Square who are supposed to be characters and bear no resemblance to them at all".
He emphasises the distinction between Osborne's personality and his plays. "How I found myself at John's memorial service in front of Peregrine Worsthorne and behind Bill Cash is beyond me." But he believes that, through the alchemy of theatre, many of the playwright's less sympathetic attitudes can be transformed. "In West of Suez, there was a scene between Ralph Richardson playing a charmingly wicked Englishman and a black woman reporter. If you put your money on it, you'd think John meant her to be got; but in the theatre they both appeared equally awful."
Gill's admission that "I suppose I'm the complete opposite of John" refers not merely to their politics and temperament but to their writing. Gill is himself a superb - and sadly underrated - writer, whose plays Small Change, The Sleepers Den and Mean Tears are among the most lyrical and haunting to have appeared in the past 30 years. Their reverberative melodies are worlds away from Osborne's rhetorical tirades, and yet Gill acknowledges the profound influence that Osborne had on him at every level. "It dawned on me recently that I'd written Mean Tears as an answer to John. It's almost about Alison Porter as a middle-class boy. I even found the word 'pusillanimous' in it."
Osborne's theatrical revolution has, in recent years, seen a reaction which, according to Gill, has impoverished the English stage. "The theatre has now become an acceptable profession instead of being a jokey one. It is now a place where, especially if you are a director, you can become seriously rich. They make all kinds of excuses for bad work. I recently heard a defence of directing your musical so that you can then subsidise the Royal Court. The 'Leavisisation' of the musical - the tangles they've put themselves through to make the musical acceptable to FR Leavis - makes me laugh; along with the notion that, if you do Carousel, you're plugged into the people on the Liverpool Kop."
He admits to being "mainly fuelled by good old class rage, but points to the social mix that inspired the theatre of the Fifties and Sixties. "If you think of those writers - Pinter, Osborne, Arden, Wesker, Bond - they were, on the whole, not university men," he reflects. "Now you have university drama departments that are hopelessly bad and theatres that carefully try to make writers study other writers. Worse, you have literary managers who have their fingers in everyone's plays. I hear now that, at the Bush, they like you to send in a first draft. For them, plays exist to be workshopped. That's what I find interesting about Osborne; they'd keep sending his plays back to redraft. As someone very wittily said, if Shakespeare sent Measure for Measure to any London theatre today, we'd never have Hamlet because they'd be constantly making him rewrite Act 5."
Theatre has attempted to refashion itself by ever more desperate means. "It has tried to satisfy a media elite in London who actually hate the theatre. This has led to a phoney populism which does not truly bring in a new audience but softens the existing one."
What pains Gill most is that playwrights, too, are compromising their integrity and writing for the market in a way that would have been anathema to the old-style Royal Court. "Take Ariel Dorfman and his attempt to persuade us that he altered Death and the Maiden on Broadway for altruism and not for cash. At least John wasn't like that."
n Peter Gill's new production of 'A Patriot for Me' opens tonight at the RSC's Barbican Theatre, London EC2, and then plays in rep to 22 Nov. Booking: 0171-638 8891