Stuart Burge

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The Independent Online

Stuart Burge, actor and director: born Brentwood, Essex 15 January 1918; Director, Nottingham Playhouse 1968-74; CBE 1974; Artistic Director, Royal Court Theatre 1977-80; married 1949 Josephine Parker (three sons, two daughters); died Lymington, Hampshire 24 January 2002.

Small of stature, usually diffidently soft-spoken, Stuart Burge was the antithesis of the more vocal, concept-led wave of theatre directors of a succeeding generation. For him – always – a play's author and cast were paramount in theatrical hierarchy although, for all that, he exercised a quiet but respected authority.

He had been both stage-manager and actor (sporadically returning to acting during his later career) before turning to directing – one of the reasons why actors generally adored him and would glow under the encouragement of his lop-sided smile.

An Essex boy, educated at Eagle House, Sandhurst and Felstead School – the latter cradling his lifelong antipathy to aggressive authority – and intended for a career in civil engineering, he had a passion for the theatre which led him to the Old Vic School in 1936. The Waterloo Road made a congenial base for Burge. With George Devine and Michel St Denis active in students' training, Burge absorbed the ideals which nurtured Devine's later creation of the English Stage Company at the Royal Court, principally that every decision made on any production must stem from the author's text, whether classic or new play.

Burge also had the advantage of playing small roles while studying. His Old Vic parts included the Fourth Clown in St Denis's production of The Witch of Edmonton (1936) with Edith Evans and, in Tyrone Guthrie's athletic production of Hamlet (1937) with Laurence Olivier, the Player Queen in a particularly mimetic version of the Play Scene (he remained passionately absorbed by movement, mime and dance).

During the Second World War years and those immediately following, after a brief spell in the Intelligent Corps, Burge served as a stage manager for several Old Vic European tours while occasionally acting at the Oxford Playhouse and the Bristol Old Vic. The latter then was enjoying a charmed life under Hugh Hunt and then Denis Carey, and Burge's King Street performances included a memorably inventive Launcelot Gobbo in The Merchant of Venice (1946), a malevolent little troll of a Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream (1948) and an enchanting Chaplain ("sweet and uncertain as church-bells on a windy day," as Christopher Fry puts it) in The Lady's Not for Burning (1950). Burge also formed an hilarious double-act with John Neville (as High Factotum and Low Factotum), sharing with him a dazzling Gilbert and Sullivan pastiche in "The Engine Driver's Song" in Puss in Boots (1950).

Burge returned to Fry when Venus Observed went to Broadway (New Century, New York, 1952) playing the supporting but telling role of Bates, coming back subsequently to take up a directing career which had begun promisingly with a successful co-production (with Basil Coleman) of Britten's Let's Make an Opera (Lyric, Hammersmith, 1949 and 1950).

From 1952 Burge was Artistic Director of the Queen's, Hornchurch, truly earning his spurs running a fortnightly rep, covering everything from Shakespeare to the most ephemeral of recent West End escapist hits. His Hornchurch reputation gradually attracted commercial theatre interest and before long he was working for the West End impresario Michael Codron, then relatively early into his career of predominantly championing new writing, on the John Mortimer double-bill of The Dock Brief and What Shall We Tell Caroline? (Lyric, Hammersmith, 1958).

Christopher Fry again figured in Burge's career when he made his RSC début with Curtmantle (Aldeburgh, 1962) a rather less striking version of the Thomas Becket story than Jean Anouilh's Becket the previous year. John Arden's The Workhouse Donkey (1963) was the first new play to be presented under Olivier's regime at the fledgling Chichester Festival. It was a ripely teeming Jonsonian tale of local-government corruption and shenanigans, and Burge – who loved Jonson's plays – was in top form with this material, orchestrating a large company with aplomb on the daunting Chichester hexagonal stage. Both play and production were underrated at the time.

After travelling with overseas productions, mainly of Shakespeare, he returned to the West End with Benn Levy's Public and Confidential (Duke of York's, 1966) a tantalising near-miss centred round a political scandal. He also reunited with Mortimer when Codron presented The Judge (Cambridge, 1967) with Patrick Wymark as a High Court eminence revisiting his cathedral-town birthplace to confront the local girl (Patience Collier in redoubtable form) he had wronged as a young man.

With his passionate belief in the importance of regional theatre, Burge as Artistic Director 1968-73 supervised a golden period for the Nottingham Playhouse. His own productions included some genuine triumphs, a superb design team emerged and he championed Peter Barnes as a major dramatist. Burge directed both The Ruling Class (1968, transferring to Piccadilly), Barnes's gleefully mordant anatomy of Britain with Derek Godfrey in the performance of his career as the Earl of Gurney, and Barnes's superb adaptation of Wedekind's Lulu plays (Lulu, 1970, transferring to Apollo) with Julia Foster as the eponymous temptress in a production which packed a powerful erotic charge.

At Nottingham he also directed his beloved Jonson – a swift and sprightly The Alchemist (1968) and the ebullient rediscovery of The Devil is an Ass (1973), both subsequently playing National Theatre seasons. He had absolutely no professional jealousy – unlike some resident directors – and others invited for productions at Nottingham under Burge included Jonathan Miller, whose directing career was catapulted forward by his reappraisals of The School for Scandal and an unforgettable King Lear with Michael Hordern.

Running any theatre is tough on both nerves and constitution. Burge did not really want to run a theatre again – indeed, he could have made a considerably more lucrative career as a freelance – but something of a crisis at the Royal Court, when the Robert Kidd/Nicholas Wright regime ran up heavy losses alarmingly swiftly, led to his taking over as Artistic Director of the ESC (1978-81).

Given his early training, Sloane Square was in effect Burge's spiritual home and, although he directed comparatively little there himself, he shrewdly steered the operation back into more secure financial waters. By far the most impressive of his own productions there was a buoyantly enjoyable revival of the rarity The London Cuckolds (1985) by Edward Ravenscroft.

Burge's biggest commercial success came in 1981. At the time I was running the Greenwich Theatre and had programmed Julian Mitchell's new play, Another Country, set in the 1930s in an English public school and a subtle study of the genesis of a spy in that ideal breeding-ground of treachery. I was especially keen (as was Mitchell) that it be directed by someone who knew that background but when Burge was sent the script, an astonishingly, speedily emphatic refusal resulted.

Still determined, Mitchell and I persuaded him to meet us, only to be refused again, if less firmly. It transpired that he liked the play but was most reluctant to face revisiting a world he had so reacted against (exactly why we wanted him, of course). Eventually I resorted to shameless blackmail, appealing to him as one who knew only too well what postponement or cancellation of a production would mean to Greenwich morale, at which point he capitulated.

He did a consummate job, coaxing wonderfully truthful performances out of the predominantly inexperienced cast and dealing with magisterial patience with a nervy Rupert Everett during an arduous technical rehearsal. I never did tell Burge that the play was going on despite not a little disapproval at board level or that – given the expense for a small theatre with a large cast and a multi-location set demanding a revolve – every single one of the many commercial managers approached to make up the shortfall in Greenwich's budget, in return for first refusal to transfer, has passed on it with varying states of distaste ("Why do you want to put on all this buggery in the bushes?" was one of the milder if less accurate refusals). Mitchell's sainted bank manager was left to bridge the gap.

The subsequent long-running West End transfer launched several careers – Everett, Kenneth Branagh, Daniel Day-Lewis and Colin Firth all had significant early or first breaks in Another Country – and Mitchell's (and Burge's) bank manager was happy too.

Television occupied Burge increasingly in later years. Another favourite author, D.H. Lawrence, was well served by a series of both Sons and Lovers and The Rainbow. He also directed the outstanding Trevor Griffiths political series Bill Brand, several of Alan Bennett's Talking Heads monologues, Tony Roche's Wexford Trilogy and, in the days when the single play was less of a rarity, a scrupulously illuminating reappraisal of Rattigan's After the Dance.

Back in the theatre it was fitting – with his regional loyalties – that he should direct the first venture of a consortium of touring theatres, working as the Touring Partnership. As Burge said at the time, "We have to be able to get large productions to provincial audiences. Otherwise they will no longer be there." His muscular production of Vanbrugh's The Provok'd Wife (1994) was a major success. Sadly, his final work for the theatre – Ayub Khan's Last Dance at Dum-Dum (Royal Court at the Ambassador's, 1999) – saw him at less than his best.

A devoted family man, Burge enjoyed a long and happy marriage. In his work, the company ethic he had so responded to at the Old Vic in the 1930s remained throughout his career a hallmark of his approach. He was never in any sense a particularly "fashionable" director, but he worked consistently for more than 50 years.

Alan Strachan