Conversations with Peter Gill
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Under George Devine’s High Command at the Royal Court, a filing system was invented for actors. Red was for ‘Red Hot Promise.’ Glenda Jackson, Vanessa Redgrave. At the opposite end of the spectrum was Blue, for establishment. Here you could find the names of those felt to be vaguely tainted by too much West End work, and thus not really ‘Royal Court’. Then, no colour at all, but unadorned comment – some cruel, most honest, all personal. There was George Devine’s distinctive hand, an authoritative, Gielgudian flourish in black ink: ‘Not in my theatre.’

There was also an Amber section, between Red and Blue. It stood for: ‘Hang on to these. We’ll probably need them at some point. They’re useful.’

It was under ‘Amber’ that a young, working-class, Welsh actor, Peter Gill found his own name when he was finally admitted to the offices of the Court, to work as a casting assistant and assistant director. He had first been inspired to direct while working as an actor there, for Lindsay Anderson, John Dexter, and Bill Gaskill, who all thought that he should direct. But it was George Devine, who took a rare pleasure in the successes of the younger generation, who rubber-stamped the suggestion – the start of a long and fascinating career.

Peter Gill is now 64. After Devine, and with the Max Stafford-Clark and Stephen Daldry years, came an unrancorous, extended pause in Peter’s work at the Court. He was finally welcomed back to the Court with his play The York Realist in 2002. It was a fitting welcome. As he came down the stairs into the bar on press night, there was spontaneous applause from friends, colleagues and critics alike. Peter is 64 – the same age as Trevor Nunn. But you think – the two men can’t be the same age. Trevor wears denim: Peter has white hair and black eyebrows and knew Joe Orton.

Like George Devine, Peter Gill takes pleasure in the potential of the younger generation. He organised an engrossing week-long workshop at the National Theatre studio with fourteen young theatre directors, including myself – the precise aim of which was left unspoken. In that sense, it was like theatre itself – a series of moments, striking in themselves, before you see the shape of the whole, the argument.

The following Monday, I got a call from him. I was in Italy, and had to call back from a scalding public kiosk. He sounded strangely frail and posh on the phone. Despite his roots, he has a ‘proper’ accent acquired early on. ‘It’s nothing important, darling,’ he said. ‘I just think maybe someone should try to get it down on paper.’ By ‘it’, he meant the workshop. There was a pause. Then he added darkly, ‘After all, I think these things are going to happen less and less’.

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What happened then was this. Peter started the week with physical exercises. He’d noticed a tendency in the current generation to ignore the physical, sensual aspects of theatre, of how bodies look in space. He described this as puritanism – the neglect of theatre’s essentially erotic nature. Why not take bodies into account? Why not use the fact that one actor is very fat and another very tall, instead of pretending otherwise? Particularly in naturalistic, new plays, this ‘sensing’ was exactly what was needed to make a ‘frail’ text live. A tip: ‘when you’re staging a scene, a good thing is to get an actor to touch the wall. It will release a lot of things.’

Peter got first a boy, and then a girl, to stand in front of the group. Then, ‘without thinking too hard about it,’ the rest of us were to go up and move parts of their body where we wanted them – an arm flung out here, a leg pointing there, adding to and changing the pose. We ended up with a swift series of sculptures, surprisingly evocative. Matt with his finger pointing forwards in a stern command. Arlette with her back to us, her arms clasped around herself in a passionate embrace. Fractional adjustments to the head, changing the angle of the eyes, were always the most expressive choices, subtly transforming a pose from triumph to dejection. ‘Interesting,’ said Peter. ‘A group of actors would have got there much more quickly, probably because they’re less inhibited. The men are always made into Stalinist sculptures and the women into sex objects.’

I went to the loo and missed the explanation for the next exercise. When I came back in, everyone was watching Raz, one of the guys, on the floor with Arlette, apparently trying to rape her. How did we get here? It turned out that Peter had told him to try to get her to lie down while he stood up. She had to try for the opposite. Perhaps this was a metaphor for working with difficult actors. Later I asked Peter if this was the case. ‘No!’ he said. ‘It’s just if you set someone an impossible task, it has enormous comedic potential!’

Then we worked with masks, which, on the face of it, is a way of eliminating the actor’s most expressive, if over-relied on tool – the face. Half of us were given brown paper bags. We tore eyeholes in them. Peter gave each person a one-word direction. ‘Aggressive.’ ‘Confident.’ ‘Depressed.’ The bags were put on the performers’ heads, faces were drawn on and they walked around, ‘being’ their qualities, interacting in pairs and threes. ‘Be it more,’ said Peter. ‘Whatever your quality is, be it even more.’ It was surprisingly comic. The silly faces on the bags, in combination with the now strangely different bodies underneath, became very expressive. Peter laughed until his eyes watered. ‘Why does it work? I suppose you automatically invest the mask with character. And of course, you notice the body of the person more. People always slightly surprise you as to who is “in their body”.’ It certainly proved his point about bodies as a neglected resource.

A selection of proper theatrical half-masks was then laid out. One by one we took a mask, put it on in front of a mirror, then turned to face the group. For as long as it felt unforced, we were to sustain the reaction we felt when we looked into the mirror. There were some brilliant moments. A tragic mask transformed a thin Indian girl into a desperate old man. Mostly Peter stopped us over-indulging – it was hard to tell when you’d outstayed your welcome – but he let her carry on for minutes, the room noiseless.

Peter has a complicated attitude towards masks. After all, he’d set these exercises up. And you could tell he was grudgingly taken by the effect they had. We all were. On the other hand, he was suspicious of that whiff of righteous bullshit that often comes with practitioners of ‘mask-work’. He admitted he was ‘slightly offended’ by the notion that non-verbal theatre is the ‘“purest” form of theatre’. A natural enough position for a playwright. He witheringly criticised a physical, devised show he had seen recently – ‘You want to say, get back to France…It’s all “Oh good, ze girls are crying…”’ – and he was frank about being nettled by the over-inflated reputations of those few who have made it in avant-garde, devised theatre in England. ‘People seem to think they’ve invented that type of theatre. But Lecoq was a bore in my day!’ He paused, then warned us: ‘And Noh theatre. Fine. But don’t think you can copy it.’ Yet for all his wariness, I felt he thought that he ‘should’ be trying to stretch his talents to more avant-garde work – hence the rattled peevishness. We were all torn in the same way – between dislike of preciousness and a fear of limited complacency.

Peter was much more decided when it came to text-work. We were all given a piece of paper face down. One by one, we turned it over and read aloud – until what we were reading stopped making sense to the rest. No one was allowed to look at his own copy while we listened. What we heard was something like this: ‘Up from my cabin my sea-gown scarfed about me in the dark groped I to find out them had my desire fingered their packet and in fine withdrew to mine own room again making so bold my fears forgetting manners to unseal their grand commission’.

Peter’s point was brilliantly clear. Never forget that the crucial thing the audience has, in classical theatre, is the ear. Without clarity you drown, very quickly. And to find the ‘tone’ of a play, you need the right degree of delivery, without artificiality. ‘As an actor you set up expectations in an audience. Which it isn’t aware of, but you are. There’s a sort of language hidden in language – where you sort of know what’s next. And if it’s wrong or mis-stressed, the audience notices and is foxed. When you say “The cat” the audience already expects the verb. And then, if you don’t say “mat” properly at the end, they feel let down. Theatre is rhetorical – there’s no way out of it. It’s how to do that and be realistic, not laughable, that’s the thing. It’s musical but it isn’t music. If an actor’s vocally too thin for what he’s saying, you think, so why are you bothering to say it? In the 1850s, actors like Henry Irving would all know Hamlet off by heart in case they got the opportunity of playing it. The thing about Shakespeare is, you can’t just knock it off like that – it won’t come tomorrow. Like anything else, you need to practice it. What actors don’t realise nowadays is, you can’t wait until you’re doing it on stage. Actors should be learning more parts, speaking more aloud everyday.’

So how should Shakespeare be spoken? ‘When Cleopatra says “Against the blown rose they may stop their nose”, you can tell that Shakespeare’s accent was open-vowelled. Shakespeare has to be RP with richer vowels. It’s not Entony and Cleepartrah… That’s like the Queen. The reason we understand her is her consonants. The reason we don’t like her is her vowels.’

Is the problem naturalistic new plays and television? Has the understated delivery television demands got the younger generation of actors into bad habits, left them bereft of the technique that Shakespeare needs? ‘Doing Shakespeare is a bit like doing a dialect play. If a text is written in dialect, you have to go right into it, pull no punches. You have to celebrate the accent without patronising it. Often, people aren’t really playing the accent. They’re doing a middle-class, refined version of it. Now a similar thing happens with Shakespeare. People – young people – are afraid of not seeming cool. The fear is you’re somehow trying to be better than you are, if you say things like “careless desolation” with any kind of delivery. In theatre at the moment we’ve got a load of public schoolboys – directors and actors – who were bullied in the schoolyard, trying to be cool. They’re scared that if they say “careless desolation” properly, we’ll think they’re some posh get. So we get this mockney. And all you’re thinking is just speak how you were brought up because we’re all sweating here.’

And the women? ‘What people forget is that Shakespeare’s young women are mainly virgins. Now, I’ve seen them played like they’ve been fucked before breakfast time! It’s either that, or they get played like Victorians. Shakespeare’s women are not Victorian ladies: nor are they sluts.’ What did Peter think of the Globe Theatre, which prides itself on its Shakespearean authenticity? ‘I don’t think it quite works. It doesn’t give a modern audience the same buzz as Shakespeare’s audience. The marble pillars do not impress us. They had no visual aids really then. It was the language which was the nicotine for them. The problem now is, we have a younger generation which isn’t enthused by the language. They stop listening as soon as you say a word like Brutus. Or they ask, why are they all kings and queens? Or, who’s Jove?’ He paused, and then admitted, ‘However, I took my great-nephew to Antony and Cleopatra. And I have to say, he sat still all the way through it. And it was a terrible production. But he said he liked the language, and the lighting. And it was some of the worst lighting I’ve seen! Rome was steel blue. And Egypt was lucozade-coloured.’

We were handed out sheet music for ‘Wonderwall’ by Oasis, Papageno’s introductory song in The Magic Flute, and Carmen’s song about love.

Terry Davies, a composer and friend of Peter’s, played the Mozart with a sexy rubato – and graphically demonstrated that it actually needs a tinkling, bare simplicity, almost mechanical. Peter got us to sing Carmen’s ‘L’Amour’ (‘Love resembles a wilful bird…’) in the style of a tetchy Miss Marple putting a child to bed. So we could see it needed, conversely, a sexy rubato.

We were discovering the appropriate tone, by trying out the opposite.

Then we sang ‘Wonderwall’. Only the girls were allowed to sing it, rather slowly, and soulfully. ‘You see?’ said Peter. ‘I haven’t actually heard the original, but I can hear, when you sing it like that, that there’s actually something very folksy at the root of it. I can hear…Simon and Garfunkel!’ There was comic outrage and denial from the group. We tried to explain why Simon and Garfunkel could not possibly be at the heart of ‘Wonderwall’, and to prove our point, sang the song in nasal, growling, fast Mancunian, as it should be sung. ‘You see,’ Peter turned on us triumphantly. ‘You, as a group, are as defensive on behalf of the correct tone for “Wonderwall” as you should be for the tone of Shakespeare. There you all were, being Liam Gallagher. Think how much you would hate a naff cover of your song. You should feel the same about Shakespeare.’

Then, with satisfaction, ‘You should have seen yourselves. When I said “Simon and Garfunkel”, your eyes all flashed.’

That afternoon, he told us, we would witness the perfect example of a certain kind of tone, now almost extinct. Frith Banbury, 91 years old, had directed shows in the West End from the 1940s onward. He sat in front of us, with his briefcase and umbrella beside him, his long, etiolated legs crossed, trousers perfectly creased, swinging one of his beautifully made brogues. He didn’t look 90. He looked a stunning 80. Beside his neat fastidiousness, Peter suddenly seemed almost louche. As Frith began to speak, we instantly heard the twitter of black and white film. A look of delight spread over Peter’s face.

‘Well, I started off as an actor. And I was rather lucky, really. I left Oxford because I felt somehow this was not serious. And I went to RADA. Ten days after I left RADA I was rehearsing in the West End. So I’ve had quite a successful career in acting, really. I worked with some marvellous people. Norman Marshall. He encouraged us to be, terrible word, I try to avoid it, creative. And Tyrone Guthrie I particularly liked. Because he combined a work ethic with fun. He had a marvellous gift of handling the stage – anything which was comic, and he was simply superb at handling crowds. And somehow you felt, “If he says it’s OK – it’s – OK – by – me.” I had never dreamt then of directing a play. But I thought that if I ever were to, I would do it like him. And I acted with some wonderful actors, too.’

‘Gielgud,’ said Peter.

‘Yes, Gielgud. I was in the Gielgud Hamlet.’

‘What was it like?’

‘Sheer, bloody, hell,’ said Frith, with feeling. ‘He would always say things to the other actors about their performances. He had very little patience. He would say things like – ’ (Frith boomed sepulchrally) ‘“Don’t be prim”. Or he would say,’ (impatiently) ‘ – “Oh go away and learn to act! Take some lessons with Martita Hunt, she needs the money!”

‘But my first directing job came quite by chance. I was called in to comment on a play they were rehearsing at RADA. I remember there were twenty-two students and they showed me two scenes. And I started to comment on the two scenes. I suddenly had an odd feeling, listening to myself. I didn’t know I could be so succinct. And I noticed they were quiet, and listening. Well, I have to say it was rather successful. After that, I decided to have a proper go. And a friend of mine, Wynyard Browne, rang me up and said “I’ve written something. Can you tell me if it’s any good?” So I read it and I said “Yes, that’s extremely good and what’s more I’d like to direct it. Can you sell me it for £ 100?” I got it on at the Lyric, Hammersmith. Then Binkie Beaumont took it on the road and it ended up at St Martin’s. So my first professional production ended up in the West End. I was very lucky. After that, I directed mostly in the West End. If I’d come along later I’d have ended up in subsidised theatre. I used the profits to put on more plays – ’

‘Give us a snapshot of theatre when you left RADA,’ Peter interrupted.

‘Censorship’ said Frith, emphatically. ‘Everyone was concerned with being safe. It was difficult to approach the seedier aspects of life. You had to be very careful about sexual references. Homosexuality – well it was spelt O.U.T. I directed Rodney Ackland’s play The Pink Room, which later changed its title to Absolute Hell. Now this was a play which told truths which people did not expect to find in the theatre. He showed people as they were, not as they’d like to be. And I thought – this is what I want from the theatre. The Pink Room was about a drinking club in London. Nobody at home – everybody on the loose – about escapism – they were drinking to forget. I thought it was an absolutely marvellous play. It had a very strong homosexual element, which had to be altered. Later, it was reinstated, and the title changed to Absolute Hell. But people found it awkward. The critics hated it. Hobson slaughtered it. Rattigan, whose accountant had told him to invest unwisely for tax reasons, put money into it. Unfortunately its reception really dried Ackland up. Essentially, his writing career ended at 47.’

‘So much so, I thought he was dead,’ said Peter.

‘Yes,’ said Frith. ‘But he lived to 81.’

The conversation moved to directing itself and actors Frith had directed. If there was one tip which Frith could give us?

‘Well, you can get wonderful actors, like Sybil Thorndike, who delight the audience, but their trouble is, they know it. The downside with Sybil was, she wanted to give them more than their value for money. An enormous humanity, outgoing personality, quite wonderful. But you could see her think, “Oh they’re so nice – I’ll just pull another face”… Edith Evans, on the other hand, would never let the audience control her. She would control them. She was the best… In rehearsal, when she’d ‘got’ a scene, she’d know and she’d stop, and leave it. She didn’t like too much chat… Because sometimes, when a scene is ‘happening’ – you need to not let the actors rehearse it. And when someone does do something A1, you have to be very careful what you say not to ruin it. Some directors worry that if they haven’t willed it, it won’t occur. You mustn’t deny the actor’s intuitive power. I was rehearsing a scene with Peggy Ashcroft in The Deep Blue Sea where her husband was breaking the news that he was leaving her. I didn’t know where to put her while he did it. And she said, I think I’ll just stay sitting at this table by the window actually – she had her back to him. We went a bit further into the scene and I asked her if she wanted to get up yet and she said no, she thought she’d stay there a bit longer. In the end, she stayed there for nearly the whole scene. Opening night, people said to me, how marvellous of you to think of putting her there, like that, for the whole of that scene. And I said yes. You get blamed for enough as a director, so take the credit where you can.’


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