Simon Gray - let's rank this playwright with the greats

The director David Leveaux has worked with Beckett and Pinter. But it's Simon Gray who deserves equal billing

In a moment of inexplicable buoyancy, I once told Harold Pinter, who was about to rehearse the role of Hirst in our production of his play No Man's Land, that I thought it essential that we didn't fall into being "Pinteresque".

Looking back, I must admit it was a note that could have gone either way. Luckily – and perhaps not too surprisingly, given Harold's energetic pragmatism when it came to the job in hand – he seemed really quite pleased.

Famous writers tend to attract adjectives the way whales attract barnacles. Pinter is invariably "enigmatic", Stoppard "dazzling" and the great whale, Beckett, "existential" – something I imagine used to be rather a fun thing to be, but now means basically "bleak".

It's been my great luck to be in a rehearsal room with all of the above, and the only thing I can say with certainty that they share is a general impatience with their adjectives, if only because those adjectives delay – or more often outright traduce – the main event. And to be fair, the particular barnacles that have attached themselves to these writers over time last about as long as useful commodities in the rehearsal room as an estate agent's brochure on entering the house to which it actually refers.There isn't, as far as I know, an adjective for Simon Gray.

And I have the feeling this is rather cunning of him, even though I also feel there ought to be one for someone who perhaps more than anyone captured the sheer hilarity, embarrassment and improbable heat under the ice of the English. His play The Late Middle Classes, which we are rehearsing for the Donmar in London, was originally directed by Harold Pinter in 1999 but was never seen in London after the West End producer took the cue from a critic to dump it for a show called BoyBand – which then closed in a few weeks. It's the kind of thing I imagine Simon Gray being as funny about as he must have felt desolated about at the time.

So when the play came to me about two years ago, I got the rather guilty feeling that I ought to have known it already. And, on reading it, was instantly happy that I had not. Because what leapt off the page was the strangest, loveliest, fiercest account of a boy growing up in post- war England that was not nostalgic but did that thing that Coward at his best could do – give you the facts about a nation coming to terms with what we mean by victory. And the facts about sex under the defensive but desirously seeking radar of language.

I did not know Simon Gray. I met him only briefly. But now I wish I had known him. Victoria, his wife, remarked to me that he was "the funniest man in England". And she said that with the kind of suddenness that managed to combine romance and the facts in one go.

What I do know is that he had the special gift of making the English language subversive. At once energetic, lethally penetrating, locally vulgar, and, in the high moments of passion, molten.

By coincidence, the heirs to the late middle classes he wrote about recently strolled through the gardens of Downing Street. But theirs strikes me as a dismally tinny echo of the troubled and passing world Simon nailed – and gave words to. Because his English was vibrant with purpose. Suspicious of the empty phrase, ruthless and spare and quite beautiful.

Samuel Beckett once referred to a favourite rugby fly-half as "capable of genius when the light is dying". I think it's an apt phrase for Simon's evocation of a certain England. Not a phoney, sentimental version of it, by any means. In fact, one frequently outraged by its secrets and hypocrisy. But also one alive to the power and grace of the English language to demolish the often unspoken anxieties of incomprehension and cliché on which sentimental tyranny and ideology depend. In other words, he had a lovely way of using words to make you free – or to fall silent at all the moments that count. And who needs an adjective for that?

'The Late Middle Classes' is at the Donmar Warehouse, London WC2 (www.donmarwarehouse. com; 0844 871 7624) from 27 May to 17 July

Arts and Entertainment
War veteran and father of Peter and Laust Thoger Jensen played by Lars Mikkelson

TVBBC hopes latest Danish import will spell success

Arts and Entertainment
Carey Mulligan in Far From The Madding Crowd
FilmCarey Mulligan’s Bathsheba would fit in better in The Hunger Games
Arts and Entertainment
Pandas-on-heat: Mary Ramsden's contribution is intended to evoke the compound the beasts smear around their habitat
Iart'm Here But You've Gone exhibition has invited artists to produce perfumes
Arts and Entertainment
U2's Songs of Innocence album sleeve

tvU2’s latest record has been accused of promoting sex between men

Arts and Entertainment
Alison Steadman in Inside No.9
tvReview: Alison Steadman stars in Inside No.9's brilliant series finale Spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
    'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

    'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

    British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
    Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

    Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

    Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
    14 best kids' hoodies

    14 best kids' hoodies

    Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

    The acceptable face of the Emirates

    Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk