Theatre: A word from the wise

Playwright Peter Gill may not be a household name but he's a force to be reckoned with. And when it comes to the direction of British theatre, he's not a man to keep his opinions to himself.
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The Independent Culture
When his first play, A Sleeper's Den was first performed as a one-off at the Royal Court in 1966, Peter Gill was too nervous to watch. Afterwards, the artistic director George Devine found him hiding in the wardrobe department. Gill needn't have worried, however. Devine immediately encouraged him to write more.

Since then he has produced a small but impressive body of work bearing his quietly distinctive stamp. Two years ago, in a particularly adroit meeting of minds, he wrote a remarkably airy and elegant translation of Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard for the RSC. Even working from the inspiration of another playwright, the hallmarks of his own writing were there. Unfashionably quiet, beautifully composed and emotionally acute, Small Change, Kick for Touch, and last year's Cardiff East all resonate in the memory, thanks to their remarkable compassion and linguistic finesse. There's more where that came from in Certain Young Men, his latest play which is about to open at the Almeida.

The kneejerk response to the choice of venue is that there must be a part for a Hollywood lead. Wrong. With the possible exception of Jeremy Northam, the eight actors Gill has assembled are not well known. Yet casting is unlikely to have been a problem as good actors feast upon his theatrically generous writing but not because of traditionally juicy, grandstanding lead roles. Gill's almost musical prose is pared right down - all the better to act upon - and narratives are shared, every part balanced to create an emotional whole. If that sounds elusive, try the forthright line from Certain Young Men being used in the publicity: "What are two grown men doing living together faking all the stupidities of a fake straight relationship?"

The nature and boundaries of love both gay and straight have proved fertile territory for Gill. Mean Tears examined the relationships between a bisexual object of affection (played to feckless perfection by Bill Nighy in the original National Theatre production), two male friends and two women. In retrospect, it summed up the mood of the Eighties. Is Certain Young Men doing the same for the Nineties? "Not in any conscious way," equivocates Gill, warily. "Mean Tears was written in, but not about, the Eighties. But looking back, that was a horrible period. Maybe that's why the relationships in it are so destructive. This play is definitely set in London, now. Inevitably, I suppose, I talk about specifics. I think I do tend to do this whether I know it or not."

Gill's writing has run parallel to a distinguished directing career. Less well known is that he started out as an actor. He became interested in theatre while growing up in Cardiff at the time of rock'n'roll. "Our grammar school had the working-class and lower middle-class Catholic boys in Cardiff. The posh ones went to Ampleforth and Downside." A couple of responsive teachers allowed them to put on a play and, gradually, acting became the obvious next step. "I was rather good at it, I thought. Of course I wasn't really." Good enough, however, to get into the local drama school alongside one Anthony Hopkins.

His professional career took him to the Royal Court in the early Sixties and to the RSC for a short spell. However, the Court proved an eye-opener and together with Stephen Frears - who later made his name directing the films My Beautiful Laundrette and Dangerous Liaisons, both written by Royal Court proteges - he returned as an assistant director. "At the age of 24 I recognised I was not going to be the sort of actor I wanted to be. I was interested in theatre, not just acting. I always wanted to go to the other rehearsals. I'd realised I was interested in this thing of the director, the holder of the interpretive idea."

These were the Court's glory days. Devine was at the helm, but the influential directorial triumvirate of Lindsay Anderson, Bill Gaskill and Anthony Page was there too. Gill did a couple of Joe Orton's early plays but really made his mark resuscitating the neglected plays of DH Lawrence. "I don't want to get nostalgic about it because it was also a very difficult time, but there was a consensus between the director, the writer, the actor and the designer. All parties got treated badly, right? But there was a profound bond between those factors."

Consequently, he's worried by what he sees as the dissolution of the power of writers and actors. "There was a brief time when the play was what was important. That meant that you could put up with people's ambition. In the Eighties, ambition itself became a laudable thing. My generation thought it was deeply uncool to use the word `career'..."

He concedes that the climate is different now because there are many more writers. "And directors," he adds, sternly. "Directing is now seen as a separate creative art. This business of auteurship has crept in. Unquestionably, the director is a very important person and very creative. It goes without saying that if you can direct you will have personality, but part of your job is to try and get rid of it." This usually soft-spoken man is firing on all cylinders now. "These days, lots of so-called auteurs can't direct anything. Particularly with a new play, they don't know what to do, what the skill is. They think directing a new play is getting it re-written, which is a grave mistake."

In a world of literary departments and script editors, this is heresy. "It's not that I think you shouldn't rewrite, it's the cult of rewrites... the fact that something is there so that people who can't write can have views. It's just a world full of endless, endless opinions. Really, what's good about a new play is what's good about it and what's bad about it is what's bad about it." He cites his own Almeida production of Ellen McLaughlin's Tongue of a Bird. "Of course, it was up for cutting and rewriting. You could have done a hundred things with it but it would have taken an awfully long time. Much better to put it on and let her get on with her next play."

He's similarly exercised about the wider state of theatre and speaks from experience. Not only did he set up the National Theatre Studio, from 1977 he was the founder director of Hammersmith's Riverside Studios, which for almost 10 years was unquestionably the country's most exciting venue, with an unparalleled profile for drama, dance and art. It opened its doors to major international companies, Beckett rehearsed in the building, there were landmark stagings of The Cherry Orchard and The Changeling (with Helen Mirren) and Gill's regime shepherded the not-so-faltering first steps of such diverse talents as Siobhan Davies and Michael Nyman and held exhibitions by the likes of Richard Rogers and Norman Foster.

"We weren't forced into an endlessly large staff, all those sponsorship people and so on. People forget that traditionally British theatre was very well-managed. For some reason, the bad practice of industry management has been visited upon a perfectly well-run profession that kept going without public subsidy for hundreds of years. It's incredibly annoying. Nobody minds working hard but the Arts Council's `tick the boxes' culture is killing anybody with any flair." He's thoroughly exasperated. "You have to have management, of course you do. But I resent being forced to jump through all these hoops. Being told you're not practical. How can you get a play written if you're not practical?"

Unofficially, he's slightly nervous about how his new play will be received. "There's no rape and nobody kills themselves," he says mock gloomily. But in terms of the bigger picture, he's surprisingly sanguine about the future, thanks to the resurgence in playwriting. "Whether I like all these new plays is neither here nor there, it's the fact that they haven't been seen off. People like them. Playwriting is at the root of British theatre. I exploded at someone the other day, explaining that Shakespeare's Globe was a new writing theatre. It's not some invention of the Arts Council."

`Certain Young Men' previews at the Almeida, London N1 (0171-359 4404) from tomorrow

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