Nancy Diuguid

Groundbreaking theatre director
Click to follow
The Independent Online

It would be only too easy to make Nancy Diuguid's career both on and off stage - a Greenham Common protester, productions for companies such as the Women's Project Company and Gay Sweatshop - sound like something out of a Bel Littlejohn column. But in fact the wave of women directors rolling through British theatre in the last 15 years owes an incalculable debt to a previous generation who had to fight much tougher battles, and to Diuguid in particular.

Nancy Diuguid, actress and theatre director: born 18 October 1948; died Johannesburg 21 May 2003.

It would be only too easy to make Nancy Diuguid's career both on and off stage - a Greenham Common protester, productions for companies such as the Women's Project Company and Gay Sweatshop - sound like something out of a Bel Littlejohn column. But in fact the wave of women directors rolling through British theatre in the last 15 years owes an incalculable debt to a previous generation who had to fight much tougher battles, and to Diuguid in particular.

She was one of several Americans - Nancy Meckler and Martin Sherman are others - who made significant contributions to theatre outside the mainstream from the 1970s onwards. Diuguid had a privileged background, born into a plutocratic family from Kentucky whose wealth came from tobacco plantations, but her whole life and artistic credo revolved around confronting prejudice, of whatever nature.

In her case, much of her work was informed by the perspective of her experience as a lesbian, leading to groundbreaking work in the exploration of sexual and gender issues, mostly with innovative small-scale companies such as Clean Break or the Women's Project.

Diuguid's early experiences in British theatre could not have been easy. She trained initially as an actor at the Central School in London, but her leanings towards a directorial career were already crystallising, even at a time when the Oxbridge - and almost exclusively male - stranglehold of the post-war era still lingered, certainly in the established commercial and subsidised theatre.

But the timing of her early career - in the early 1970s - chimed with the increasingly heady days of an explosion on the London Fringe and the proliferation of radical touring companies - Red Ladder, A Plum Line, Belt and Braces among them - mostly semi-forgotten now but often producing urgent material directed and performed at white heat. Diuguid also had the good fortune to find a sympathetic producer-figure in David Aukin, then at Hampstead Theatre and always encouraging to vibrant new talent, and for a crucial time she had a useful base as an Associate Director at Hampstead.

For over 20 years Diuguid directed a stream of constantly challenging productions. Early work included Susan Griffin's Voices at Action Space (still thriving - now at the Drill Hall - in Chenies Street), a startlingly fresh play in its candid handling of lesbian issues; Care and Control, a passionate piece on women's custodial rights to their children; and an early Timberlake Wertenbaker play, New Anatomies, for a company of her own, Changing Women, which flourished for a while in the late 1970s.

Other memorable Diuguid productions must include Tissue (1978), an early play from Louise Page, another innovative piece in its lucidly unsentimental handling of the subject of breast cancer. Yet feminist-based issues were far from her exclusive concern. One of her very finest productions was the Gay Sweatshop play by one of the company's regular dramatists, Noel Greig, The Dear Love of Comrades (1979), a haunting and beautifully staged (on a shoestring) evening structured round the life of the 19th-century socialist Utopian Edward Carpenter; there was not a single woman in the cast.

Later Diuguid work, revealing an even more impressive control and economy - she was the least showy of directors - included Franz Xavier Kroetz's Request Programme, an unforgettably powerful production (1986), and, for the Clean Break Company working with women ex- prisoners, Lin Coghlan's Apache Tears (2000). She also had a happy staff/director association with English National Opera for a period, nurturing her love of music.

When her cancer was diagnosed some three years ago, Diuguid settled in South Africa with her long-time partner Melanie Chait and their foster-son, but she never stopped her trailblazing work. A bald summary might make it seem didactic but that was only very rarely the case. Yoked to her social concerns and life- enhancing passion was an almost mystical sense of the theatre's primal power - she would have agreed with the argument of a seemingly unlikely ally, Sir Ralph Richardson, that "the actor must dream. Dream constantly."

It was this visionary sense which infused her best work with its particular wattage, whether it was a production with only a handful of actors on a bare stage in a London basement or one of her more recent large-scale projects. They included the techno-opera Earthdiving in Cape Town (2002) and a major project with the community of the Alexandra township involving music, dance, drama and song. Called Voices - the same title as one of her earliest productions - this project was for Dedel' Ingoma (meaning "Release Your Song"), the company formed to develop the ambitious scenario.

Alan Strachan



Comments