Clifford Williams

Theatre director with comedic talent and an awesome staging flair


Clifford Williams, theatre director: born Cardiff 30 December 1926; married 1952 Joanna Douglas (marriage dissolved 1959), 1962 Josiane Peset (two daughters); died London 20 August 2005.

The recent Stratford RSC staging of Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors, with its beguilingly eclectic comedic vocabulary, was for playgoers with longer memories a happy reminder, too, of one of the best RSC productions of a play with which it usually strikes lucky. Clifford Williams's 1963 Stratford production - like not a few in his early career - came about by chance, when Paul Scofield's illness delayed Peter Brook's King Lear. Faced with the need quickly (and economically) to plug an unforeseen gap in the repertoire, Williams was given The Comedy of Errors, which he staged with invention on a simple wooden tiered set with costumes initially uniform, growing ever more colourful through the evening, using all his experience of mime and ballet to create a spirallingly hilarious vortex of confusions, aided by an early RSC cast of real mettle.

The production, vigorously muscular, approaching the text with both verve and attention to detail, with laser-beam precision of focus, was characteristic of Williams's best work, which covered an impressive range - Shakespeare, Shaw, comedy, thrillers, revue and musicals - both in the UK and widely overseas.

Welsh by background - his father was a plumber in Cardiff - and educated at Highbury County Grammar School, Williams came into the theatre circuitously. As a schoolboy he became fascinated by W.B. Yeats's work and he managed to get together a group of schoolmates to present one of the poet's Plays for Dancers in the local library.

Williams abandoned adolescent notions of studying Economics and came to London, drifting into casual theatre work, first as a dresser at the fringe Embassy Theatre. Then, as a lowly "assistant assistant stage manager" at the Chanticleer Theatre, he had a chance to sit in on some adventurous productions and to learn from actors such as the great émigré Frederick Valk and from a startlingly precocious Peter Brook who directed his first London production, Cocteau's Infernal Machine, at the Chanticleer.

His interest in mime and movement brought Williams a job as a dancer (although he had "great hammer feet and a large arse", he was usefully strong enough to lift ballerinas and he once partnered Alicia Markova - "she was a little bit of steel and had terrible language"). At the outbreak of the Second World War, registered as a pacifist, Williams worked in the mines, although he kept up his ballet classes ("not everybody goes straight from pit boots to ballet shoes"). He subsequently joined the Army, was later commissioned and ended up doing garrison theatre (once billed as "the Dancing Lieutenant") in Shropshire.

On demobilisation, Williams decided to commit totally to the theatre and worked hard in repertory, later forming his own Mime Theatre Company. He also worked for Theatre Workshop under Joan Littlewood and spent a crucial period in Africa.

At home, a breakthrough came with Williams's work at the vital little Arts Theatre in London where he came up with some productions striking for their fusion of bold imagery and arresting physicality, Lorca's Yerma (1961) and O'Neill's A Moon for the Misbegotten (1962) with a young Colin Blakely included.

The fledgling RSC's Director, Peter Hall, offered Williams a somewhat thankless position as a kind of staff production-monitor ("but you'll never be a producer here" Hall told him) and he took the job, although he never was entirely comfortable with what he felt was "virtually a closed shop". A stroke of good fortune came his way when Peter Wood had to drop out of a new writing season for the RSC and Williams was assigned to David Rudkin's Afore Night Come (Arts, 1962). The result saw Williams's career take off; his production was a beautifully paced orchestration of simmering subterranean violence inside a closed community and displayed the RSC's early ensemble at a peak.

Subsequent RSC Williams productions ran the gamut. His joyous Comedy of Errors was revived several times and was an international hit on its world tour with the Brook/Scofield Lear. The pairing of Marlowe's Jew of Malta and The Merchant of Venice (Stratford and Aldwych, 1965) with towering contrasted performances from Eric Porter as Barabas and Shylock stamped Williams as a director who could rise effortlessly to the challenges of large-scale productions and Hall used him too as co-director for most of the revelatory 1964 History Plays cycle.

A marked instance of his comedic talent was Williams's fizzing, high-octane version of the long-neglected Wild Oats (Aldwych) while contrastingly he gave a rapt, concentrated stillness to Rolf Hochhuth's The Representative (Aldwych, 1963), controversial in its day for its portrait of papal casuistry during the Holocaust. Hochhuth's play undoubtedly spurred Williams's interest - at a time of shifting social and theatrical perspectives in theatre that might provoke arguments or disturb complacency. He remained utterly committed to Hochhuth's portrayal of Churchill's alleged complicity in General Sikorski's death in Soldiers (Toronto and New York, New Theatre, 1968) during its early productions, although he admitted that by the time of its belated and unsuccessful London version, his work may have become "tired".

Soldiers was vigorously championed, originally by Kenneth Tynan, who had hoped originally to see it at the National Theatre, and Tynan was also the main begetter of the erotic revue Oh, Calcutta! (Roundhouse and Royalty, 1970). Williams had detested the flashy New York production and certainly his London version was much better, especially visually; he genuinely believed in its powers of sexual liberation (everyone - director included - had been naked in the rehearsal room during the nude sequences) but subsequently he would own that he had been always disappointed at the level of the sketch-material. The sequel, also very much Tynan's baby, was Carte Blanche (Phoenix, 1976) but, while Williams's work had some stunning visual sequences, the material again was disconcertingly jejune.

Simultaneously Williams continued to work successfully in both subsidised and more overtly commercial theatre. He had an internationally long-running and lucrative success with Anthony Shaffer's Sleuth (St Martin's and Music Box, NY, 1967). At the National Theatre he also directed one of the iconic productions of Olivier's Old Vic era with an all-male As You Like It (1967). In the West End, he directed musicals with impressive fluency; they included the Barrie-inspired Our Man Crichton (Shaftesbury, 1964), with Kenneth More and Mardi Gras (Prince of Wales, 1976).

In Hugh Whitemore's Pack of Lies (Lyric, 1983) he brought subtle compassion to its picture of a bewildered suburban couple caught up in espionage and in the same author's Breaking the Code (Haymarket and Comedy, 1986) he worked well with Derek Jacobi as a mesmeric Alan Turing.

Latterly Williams's career at home faltered - not surprisingly in a theatre increasingly prone to favour celebrity casting and "hot" new directorial talent ahead of experience - although he continued to work extensively abroad. The RSC brought him back for a time in the early 1980s but his experience on the revival of the John Dighton 1940s farce The Happiest Days of Your Life (1984), an ill-chosen piece for the Barbican stage, was unhappy. Even more vexed was his involvement with the legendary (for all the wrong reasons) Legends by James Kirkwood. His last West End production was a revival of Mary Chase's Harvey (Shaftesbury, 1996); Williams did everything he could to animate an undercast venture, but it defeated even him.

Williams may have become unfairly unfashionable in later years, but his career remains an important factor in the early days of both the RSC and the National Theatre as well as a testament to his breadth of interest and his awesome staging flair.

Alan Strachan

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