Theatre: Making a drama out of a cupboard

London's Gate Theatre is tiny, far from the `glamorous' West End, and doesn't pay its actors. But it wins awards and makes careers. What's the secret?
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He was the Dean of St Paul's, not a copywriter, but the John Donne line about "infinite riches in a little room" might have been written with the express intention of advertising the Gate Theatre in Notting Hill. Perched on top of the Prince Albert pub, in a space where you'd have to battle to park the least assuming of limos, this is a venue that simply refuses to countenance limited theatrical horizons or artistic caution.

Where but at this address could you have seen in the last year: a hilarious, scarily topical Bulgarian satire about the dubious antics of Nato (The Colonel Bird); a delicate insight into the work of a French hospice and into the potentially rich experience of dying (Intimate Death); a powerful West Indian deconstruction of Shakespeare's last play (Une Tempete) and the brave, belated world premiere of Jim Allen's Perdition, a drama about the uncomfortable symmetries between Zionism and Nazism which the Royal Court had cancelled 12 years earlier because of unfounded allegations of anti-Semitism?

It was in recognition of the imaginative range and quality of the productions mounted in the 15 months of his tenure here that artistic director Mick Gordon was last week handed the coveted Empty Space/ Peter Brook Award by the great man who has lent his name and spirit to this prize. But given that the theatre (founded by Lou Stein in 1979) is just about to enter its 21st year, it would be nice to think that it was also, partly, a lifetime achievement gong.

It's an opportune moment, therefore, to take stock of an institution which proves that cultural influence can be in inverse proportion to size and which is well-named in that it has proved to be a gateway for some of the most powerful luminaries in British theatre - from directors Stephen Daldry and Katie Mitchell to designer Ian McNeil and producer Caroline Maude, a crucial figure in Daldry's successful regime in the early Nineties.

A wag once defined life as an endless succession of Balliol men. It's not a gross exaggeration to characterise theatrical life in Britain as an endless collision of ex-Gaters. An imminent example of this in action is Nativity, the latest in the Young Vic's incomparable Christmas shows. Caroline Maude is the producer; the dramaturge is Simon Reade, who was Daldry's literary manager and occupies the same post with the Royal Shakespeare Company; the author and director is David Farr, Mick Gordon's immediate predecessor as the numero uno at the Gate.

In 1991, Max Stafford-Clark made a witty quip about the kind of drama that would, at the time, have been parodically perfect for the Royal Court: "If we could find a play called When I was a Girl I was Not Quite a Bent Catholic, we would stage it immediately." By the same token, the platonically perfect play for the Gate in the early years of this decade would have been a rediscovered masterpiece of the Spanish Golden Age, called something like Damned For Three Judgements in One. With innumerable switches of location and a cast of thousands, this play requires dazzling feats of mental and spatial origami from the designer and the director before it can be crammed into the Gate.

Meanwhile, backstage, the office is doubling as the dressing room. In the midst of a heap of discarded costumes, a producer is on the phone to New York trying to negotiate rights. In the spirit of non-compartmentalised involvement, the literary manager is helping with the get-in and manages not only to break a window but also to send a piece of scenery plummeting down on to the bus stop outside.

Yet it all pays off, receives ecstatic notices, and demonstrates how the Gate thrives on paradox in cheekily turning apparent limitations into strengths. Because of its lack of space (originally just 56 seats, now double that) and because it can't afford to remunerate its actors, directors and designer (who are therefore driven to maximise the artistic rewards), it is able to put on just those huge, challenging rarities that might well prove to be a commercial nightmare for their natural home, the vast Olivier Theatre.

The elements of the theatre's distinctive identity - deriving from its eclectic mix of neglected classics with contemporary work from all over the globe - were put in place in the mid-to-late Eighties during the artistic directorship of Giles Croft (who has just taken over the Nottingham Playhouse). It was he who established two features that we now take for granted at this address: the notion of the coherently themed season (there were linked plays from Latin America and Japan) and recognition of the key role of the translator. All literate theatre lovers now have volumes from the Absolute Classics imprint on their shelves. It's salutary to remember that this vital horizon-expanding list - which includes work by Schnitzler, Marivaux, Calderon, Horvath and, that Gate speciality, the brilliant chamber plays of Strindberg - did not exist before Croft negotiated it with his publisher brother.

Stephen Daldry inherited this creative environment and then, dazzlingly, took the place up a gear or six before moving on to the Royal Court and history. His Spanish Golden Age season, whose complexion owed much to the research work of his eventual successor, Laurence Boswell, won an Olivier Award. Before Daldry, it would have been about as likely for a fringe venue to pick up a "Larry" award as it is, say, for a village arbitrator to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

The theatre is now lucky to be entering its majority and the new millennium under the directorship of Mick Gordon, the 28-year old Ulster whizzkid who has revitalised the venue, giving it back the kind of buzz it had in the Daldry days.

Gordon's plans for 2000 include a wide-ranging five-play season called Opening the Gate where, thanks to co-producing with the National Theatre Studio, he will actually be able to pay actors for four of the seven weeks of their commitment. But, like his predecessors, he's equivocal about money and the tricky morality of asking professionals to effectively subsidise the art form. Gordon says: "It [the Gate] shouldn't stop being poor because then it would be run by older people and would no longer be a passion machine". But there is one very senior figure who - as a quid pro quo for Gordon helping him mount a mammoth project in America next year - is about to make his Gate debut. Peter Hall, no less, will direct An Unequivocal Position about a man who gets stuck while buggering an older woman and has to call in his gynaecologist father to help. It's a play of multiple involuntary orgasms. The joke at the Gate is that "The man who began his career with Godot and people who can't stop waiting is concluding it with a play about people who can't stop coming."

Gordon knows the fruits of success can denature a place like this and that when you find yourself getting too expansionist in your ambitions, it is time to move on. "In order to preserve the Gate's genius," he laughs, "you have to keep it above the pub in this daft little room."

`Marathon' is at the Gate, London W11 from tomorrow (0171-229 0706)