Citizens' charter

The Citizens in Glasgow is losing the triumvirate who, from the Seventies, built the theatre's reputation as a crucible of new talent. Chris Jagger was there in the early days
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The Independent Culture

Long before the words "Glasgow" and "culture" were acquainted, there was the Citizens Theatre. Surrounded by empty lots, it stood alone in Gorbals, a relic of a once-bustling Victorian era. Yet to work there was the aim of most aspiring young actors from the 1970s onward. The team running the theatre consisted of three individuals - Philip Prowse, Giles Havergal and Robert David MacDonald. After involvement in about 220 productions, Havergal and MacDonald are leaving; Prowse will stay on for another year. They will be a hard act to follow.

The players who have passed through the theatre include such names as Rupert Everett, Pierce Brosnan, Gary Oldman, Tim Roth, Ciaran Hinds, Garry Cooper, Gerard Murphy and Ann Mitchell. Many others have taken the experience gained there and built on it in productions elsewhere. The trouble, however, is that there's nowhere quite the same. Despite the rain, the basic wage and the fact that nobody came to see you perform (not from London, anyway), nowhere else came close to achieving this standard of work for young, aspiring actors.

When Prowse told you something, it was for a reason, and you did it; there was no need to question things too much or become embroiled in endless discussions, as happened elsewhere. When a Chekhov play was agreed for an autumn season, MacDonald would translate it from the Russian. Havergal might direct and Prowse design the set. It was simple: they were all on the same wavelength, and they got a kick if you tuned in too.

I arrived there in autumn 1977, rather wet behind the ears after passing the audition with the aid of a Shakespeare sonnet. As the directors could probably weigh up your suitability in five seconds, it saved time, and they were thankful for that. They did actually talk to you, too: one actress - I believe it was Sian Thomas - told me that during the chat she became so flummoxed that she admitted to them that she hadn't a clue what she was talking about. Still, she was hired, Havergal and company no doubt feeling guilty about putting her through the ordeal.

"Hullo, Harry, how are you?" were the first words I uttered on stage in the world premiere of Noël Coward's Semi-Monde to one Pierce Brosnan, as I shook like a leaf struggling to open the de rigueur cigarette case and light up casually, like Cary Grant. MacDonald tells me that he thought Brosnan was star material, but no way did we believe that the lad with the smeared-down hair was a future 007.

Prowse had retrieved Coward's first play, which he had penned in 1924, although it had never been produced. Max Reinhardt was to produce it in Berlin as Semi-Monde. It was apparently deemed too sexually explicit for the British censor: there was a "gay" scene before that word came to have its modern connotation. All the actors received the same Equity minimum, borrowing each other's make-up and trawling through flea markets for clothes.

At the preview, which was free and thus taken up by local lorry-drivers, seamstresses and crane operators from Gorbals, the audience barely murmured at the sexual infidelities of the English upper classes, but exploded into life as one particular cad was confronted and shot by a jealous husband. They leapt to their feet roaring their approval, and headed for the bar. Within a couple of weeks that sparkling set was chucked out on to the empty lot behind the theatre, where it served as seating for the local winos as they warmed themselves around blazing chipboard.

The next play that season was Vautrin, a rather obscure text that Balzac had knocked off in a weekend. It had seen the light of day but once before it was banned for containing a representation of Louis Napoleon, who was alive at the time. MacDonald translated it from the French, and directed. Ciaran Hinds, I recall, played a butler, and his make-up became progressively greener as the run continued, yet we managed to keep straight faces.

The evergreen Loot that followed appealed to both the Catholic and Protestant tastes there, and I remember Garry Cooper (on TV in Murder in Mind as I write) applying mascara during one scene on stage as schoolgirls shrieked as only they can during a matinée. There was lots of makeup at the Citz - some of it, I believe, removed from the shelves of Boots.

I asked Prowse how he and his colleagues came upon the historical nuggets of drama they specialised in. He replied that the seed had been cast during his youth while he was languishing in the Worcestershire countryside tuning in to the Third Programme, which sometimes broadcast relatively unknown plays. This got him thinking that there was life beyond Shakespeare, but he was not in a position to realise these aspirations until he had the structure to do so in Glasgow.

The timing was right when Prowse and Havergal arrived in the city in 1969 (MacDonald followed later), as the theatre was then on its last legs. "When you have a collapsed system, you can do something revolutionary," Prowse told me. The man who helped to make that happen was Bill Taylor, then the chairman of the board and a left-wing radical who encouraged a theatre aimed at young people, and which kept ticket prices as low as possible.

Ann Mitchell, known now to a wider audience for her role in Widows, was in Glasgow during the early days. She told me what was different about the Citizens: "It was three men with a vision, who were courageous enough against all odds and criticism to do what they felt was exciting and innovative theatre. They wanted to reach an audience who wouldn't normally go there, hence the free previews and 50-pence admission charges, a policy maintained for many years.

"It was the best theatre company I have ever worked with; the most efficiently run, managed and designed. Most people on the outside didn't have a clue of the standard that they offered and demanded." I mentioned to her that Prowse now felt that the place had become rather old-fashioned, predictable perhaps, but she countered that the aesthetic values don't change for her. "I remember sitting on the set of Semi-Monde, looking around and actually shivering as it was so beautiful," Mitchell said.

After that single season I returned to Glasgow only once to take part in a production of The Threepenny Opera, engineered in a typical Citz way with the device of rogues and villains breaking into and squatting a grand house with a grand dame (played by Havergal) and "putting on" the play in front of her. MacDonald translated again, adding some juicy snippets of spiel Deutsch and allowing me to open as Mackie Messer. With three other gangly youths I doubled as a "lady of the town", indulging in the usual crossdressing charades and antics, including falling backwards over chairs. It was work, but fun too.

I asked Prowse what criteria he used when hiring actors, some of them fresh from drama school. "It's whether they're interesting on stage or not; some had that instant appeal, such as Rupert Everett. He auditioned for us, but there was nothing to suit him until he just arrived at the stage door one day and asked for a job. As I was looking for young dukes to play in the Proust adaptation A Waste of Time, and as they were in short supply in Glasgow at the time, we hired him."