Feasting on a diet of words
Interview by Heather Neill, The Times, 3 October 2001
Director Peter Gill is back at the National with what he calls a real play.
Peter Gill looks like a man who has come home. After four years away, he is back at the National Theatre to direct John Osborne’s Luther and is absorbed by the task. Now 62, he has the air of a brilliant teacher — inspiring, courteous but exacting. Too polite to say that he’d rather not waste time talking, he hurries back to deal with production developments as soon as decently possible.
There was a time when Gill was at odds with the regime here. In Richard Eyre’s day, he wrote “a joke article” criticising the repertoire at the time of the revival of Eyre’s spectacularly successful Guys and Dolls. He says now that “the whole of British theatre seems to be trying to please people who are not going to be pleased”, and that, in 1997, after a spell spent writing, he came back to find “theatre was desperate to be fashionable” and “had lost its hauteur”.
He is not, however, a cultural snob. His own play, Cardiff East, put on in the Cottesloe in 1997, was written at a time when council estates were “demonised. I wouldn’t say things were pretty, but there was a notion in some quarters that lives aren’t led there as they are anywhere else.”
He was brought up on a Cardiff council estate himself, as a Catholic. He says he remembers there being a film of Luther he was forbidden to see as a child and is intrigued to learn that he lives near one of the British headquarters of the Augustinians — Luther’s order — in West London.
The rift with the National seems to have been healed under Trevor Nunn, although Richard Eyre was able to describe Gill affectionately last year in a diary entry as “like a highly intelligent, worldly and charming Jesuit priest ... sparking observations about the romanticism of British theatre, the shapelessness of great plays and the ineradicable presence of class in our culture”. It is a description which might explain the eagerness with which Gill accepted the invitation to direct Luther.
Full of argument, often in long speeches glittering with graphic imagery, this is not a play for the faint-hearted director, although it is also highly theatrical and offers several riveting set pieces. The actor playing Luther — Rufus Sewell in this case — has the opportunity to build up a psychological study of the anguished private man and the bold public one as he ages by 20 years. But Gill was first drawn to Osborne’s language: “He has found a way to make a demotic language without cliché or slang, an idiom which is modern, but you believe Luther is speaking.”
A brilliant academic, Luther is known, nevertheless, to have used peasant imagery, often lavatorial, and Osborne gives the scatological vocabulary full rein. Osborne, says Gill, “has taken the British chronicle play and infused it with language. This is not an anodyne portrait; Luther was riddled with doubt. It is about what made him like he was, but also what was going on around him.”
It is tempting to see a topical relevance in this portrait of religious obsession at a time of change across Europe as the Middle Ages gave way to the Renaissance. Gill is wary of easy parallels, however. “I’m not the sort of director who says the Wars of the Roses are really about Bosnia. The play must be allowed to be the play. This is a vivid portrait of an obsessive reformer and his collusion with the powers-that-be in the name of mystic insight. But it’s true that the emphasis of plays changes with the times.”
In contrast to many actors and directors, Gill claims always to have enjoyed the Olivier and is amused at the way artistic directors keep “nibbling” at the building. And he knows something about the demands of buildings. After distinguished work at the Royal Court, he was founder director of Riverside Studios from 1976. In 1984 he became founding director of the National Theatre Studio and ran the Cottesloe jointly with Peter Hall.
Gill has worked with all the NT chiefs, except Olivier. “He offered me Hedda Gabler and The Idiot and I can’t believe I turned them down.” At least he has no doubts about Luther: “This is a real play, a play worth doing.”
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