Roland Rees: Theatre director who occupied a central role on the fringe and was hailed for his production of 'The Elephant Man'

He may have seemed initially combatively pugnacious but was a gentle spirit and a born artistic collaborator

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In the fervent years of British fringe theatre from the late 1960s to the icier realpolitik of the later 1980s few figures were more vital than the director Roland Rees. The companies – Inter-Action, Foco Novo, Freehold, Belt and Braces, and the period's venues – Oval House, The Place, the ICA Theatre, all in their day potent names, may no longer survive or buzz as before, but Rees and many of his collaborators left no mean legacy.

Like several key figures of that scene (David Hare, Christopher Hampton included), Rees came from a cultivated, public-school background, in his case Charterhouse. With his bulky build, beard and strong head he may have seemed initially combatively pugnacious – he certainly could be stubborn – but he was in essence a gentle spirit and a born artistic collaborator.

He was the elder son of a barrister father and physiotherapist mother, born in Llanislen in Wales. After Charterhouse he read history at Aberystwyth University, specialising in American Studies (the Civil War remained a lifelong interest) and it was his university period which crystallised his interest in the theatre, and jazz, another enduring passion.

Drawn strongly to the US, Rees began research in New York for a postgraduate degree, working on a thesis on the black radical activist Marcus Garvey, but the off-Broadway scene of the later 1960s, particularly the work of Joseph Chaikin's Open Theatre, so startlingly physical in impact, and galvanising by comparison with a staider London theatre, came to increase the urgency of his move into a career in the theatre.

Returning to London he soon became closely involved with the early work of the burgeoning Ambiance Theatre, part of the operation run by Ed Berman, often innovatively presenting lunchtime productions and focusing on new work, regularly by African-American dramatists such as Ed Bullins and Le Roi Jones, decidedly trail-blazing in a contemporary costive theatre. Rees directed the first produced play by the Trinidad-born Mustapha Matura, Black Pieces (1972), which was widely noticed.

In the same year Rees, along with David Aukin (later a key executive figure at Hampstead Theatre and the National Theatre) and the American playwright Bernard Pomerance, established the Foco Novo Company (the name, taken from an early Brazil-set piece from Pomerance, translates roughly as "new departure point"). It developed into a seminal group of the period; it had no permanent home but performed widely on tour in a vibrant new circuit of university theatres, improvised spaces and what became known as "arts labs", as well as at Hampstead Theatre.

The play Foco Novo (1972) was an initial shoestring venture, funded largely by donations from Pomerance's richer American friends grouped largely around the Randolph Avenue area (as Rees recalled, "full of drop-out Americans and psychiatrists, friends of RD Laing and so on"). The actors received the Equity-minimum £12.50 per week (later to rise to a princely £20). Rees's punchy production was seen at the Oval House, the wonderfully dingy Roxy in Gospel Oak and at The Place off the Euston Road, where its corrugated iron roof made for splendidly atmospheric soundtracks for the scenes of urban guerrilla warfare.

Over the next 16 years Foco Novo presented a remarkable body of work ranging from several Brecht adaptations (often of lesser-known plays) including Pomerance's version of Man is Man and Howard Brenton's adaptation of Conversations in Exile (1982). Memorable productions also included new work from CP Taylor (Bread and Butter, 1973) and Howard Brenton's Gum and Goo (1971). Foco Novo also premiered one of Brenton's finest plays, Bloody Poetry (Hampstead, 1974), fascinatingly exploring the bonds between the Byron/Shelley circle in Switzerland and Italy.

By far the most successful work to emerge from Foco Novo was Pomerance's The Elephant Man (Hampstead, 1977). The play has had several glitzy revivals (David Bowie and Bradley Cooper headlining) but none has matched the original with its unforgettable performances from David Schofield as Merrick (eschewing make-up to rely on physicality) and Jennie Stoller as the actress Mrs Kendal, both ineffably affecting as the human soul beneath the deformity emerges. Rees also directed, with most of the same leading actors, a National Theatre revival (1980), seamlessly adapting his staging for a much larger venue.

Pomerance also delivered Quantrill in Lawrence (ICA, 1980) for Foco Novo. Exploring one of the bloodiest episodes of the Civil War, (described once as "Kansas's 9/11 or Pearl Harbour"), a powerful play tracing a city`s descent into hideous violence and anarchy was given a muscular Rees production, but its critical reception – possibly from those expecting another Elephant Man – was disappointingly blinkered.

Foco Novo fell foul of changed attitudes to arts subsidy when a more than usually craven Arts Council axed it in 1988. Rees directed occasionally as a freelance, was a much-respected tutor at Rada and also wrote a fine study of "alternative" theatre in Fringe First: Pioneers of Fringe Theatre on Record (1992). But never again did he enjoy the congenial working ambience of Foco Novo. Although it had no permanent company (which was economically unfeasible) key personnel regularly returned, confirming Rees's belief in contemporary work, as well as what could be termed his credo: "There was a strong sense of being with a group ... many companies based their work on the composition of the group members. People stayed together to work together".

Rees's later years were sadly affected by Parkinson's disease and then a debilitating stroke from which he did not fully recover. In this difficult time he remained based in his Peckham house with his long-time partner (they married in 2003), the distinguished costume designer Sheilagh Killeen; she cared for him throughout with unstinting love and devotion.

Roland Rees, theatre director: born Llanislen, Wales 13 January 1941; married 2003 Sheilagh Killeen; died London 2 September 2015.