The missing link: After years of critical indifference, Peter Gill is back. Don't miss him now
Peter Gill Festival: Original Sin, Small Change, Friendly Fire, Mean Tears, Kick For Touch
Crucible, Sheffield to 22 June
Review by Susannah Clapp, The Observer, 9 June 2002
He's 62, Catholic and a member of the most routinely reviled of all UK's nationalities the Welsh. He's written 13 plays, founded the Riverside Studios and the National Theatre Studio and was a huge directorial presence at the Royal Court in the 1970s, where he rediscovered D.H. Lawrence as playwright. But over the past decade or two, although he's never disappeared entirely as writer or director, things quietened down. Six months ago, even the most avid of theatregoers would scarcely have flickered at the name of Peter Gill.
Then in January, Gill's The York Realist was premiered at the Royal Court: its jolting portrait of Vaselined tenderness among the farming community made a decisive contribution to the new ruralism of the British theatre, got a lot of praise and transferred to the West End. Now, another new play has opened at Sheffield. And the dramatist has been awarded a rare tribute: a month-long festival devoted to his work, with talks, workshops, masterclasses and a staging of four plays from the Seventies and Eighties.
In promoting this, Michael Grandage, the artistic director at Sheffield, has shown a boldness that will one day make him an inspired director of the RSC or the National. Of course, it would be worth staging Gill simply as a magical missing link in theatrical history. On the one hand, the fierceness of his social engagement recalls John Osborne, though without the ironing board and explicitness. On the other, his terseness, for all that he's gentle, has Pinter-like flashes. He's also formally inventive: intercutting past and present, interweaving different places to make his scenes.
Still, the stronger case for celebrating him goes beyond that of dramatic Polyfilla. Gill's plays have been a steady voice of opposition to the things that are most commonly wrong with the theatre. These things are windbaggy playwright having completely nothing to say; brain-dead spectaculars that struggle to compete with cinema's special effects; dogged literalism which insists that realism means showing everything that's said; and the ingrained snobbery that presents the working classes engaging with the outside world, while the middle classes take their inner lives out for a stroll.
Gill isn't like this. He's an apparent paradox: not obviously dramatic, but completely theatrical. His plays aren't waiting to evolve into movies, nor are they better read than seen: in fact, they rarely seem complete on the page; they need to be performed. Their force of feeling is expressed not only in passionate speeches but also in the coiled intensity of their physical movement. There's not a lot of action, but everything counts. What seems to be a Roundhead lack of flamboyance is actually a high-wire act.
In his wonderful introductory lecture to the festival, Nicholas Wright quibbled with the idea of Gill as 'a gay writer', suggesting that the label applies only if you take for granted a heterosexual audience. It's a well-made point and one which applies to Gill's political position, too. He writes not simply about, but from the point of view of the Welsh working-class of his childhood.
Which is what makes Small Change the best play in this festival. First staged in 1976, it's both a tragedy and a study of disappointment built around the drama of two boyhood friends (one in love with the other) and their mothers (one trying to save the other). It's directed with perfect rapt focus and attention by Rufus Norris.
Jessica Curtis, the designer for all the early plays in the Studio, has created what looks like an unadorned navy box, broken up only by the mould of a fireplace and four chairs, and flooded with crepuscular blue light of the kind that might accompany the dying of the day or a visitation from another planet. Four excellent actors (James Loye, Susan Brown, Damian O'Hare and Maureen Beattie) treat this as a space that can be filled with period evocation - right down to the oilcloth on the kitchen table but which is also an arena for emotional debate and physical violence.
Here's a play that proves that realism need have nothing to do with putting lots of plumbing on stage and which moves convincingly from the dreariest of practical details to a lush lyricism. It provides one of the most revealing sequences in postwar theatre, as the two mothers dance together to their own crooning. For a moment, they are the centre of sympathy, swaying companionably in their pinnies, with one bleak face looking over the other's shoulder.
There are lively moments elsewhere, but nothing that rivals the truth, pain and generosity of Small Change . Kick For Touch , produced seven years later, generates intensity, though not alacrity, as it entwines memories and an urgent present tense to plot the tale of a woman, her husband and his brother. Josie Rourke's absorbing production is a masterclass in how to make each scrap of time and position count. Seated between the two brothers, the excellent, poised Ruth Gemmell makes every turn of her head into a lasered beam.
Friendly Fire (it's worth paying attention to Gill's titles) shows the damage done by the blunders of affection. An adolescent love circle girl loves boy who loves another boy who loves girl it enables the Crucible's youth theatre to show its considerable talents as an integral part of the festival.
Mean Tears is the most humorously barbed of the plays, and the most loaded with time-transfixing allusions from the Velvet Underground to Jimmy Tarbuck. It introduces an unforgettably voluptuous voice in Claire Price, who plays a toff girlfriend as if she were just mouthing off on the way to shoot a few deer. It evokes a totally recognisable world in its homo-heterosexual love chain. And it conjures up an entirely pretty and spoilt object of adoration, rendered with impeccable petulance by Stephen Billington.
He's called 'Angel' by one of his (female) lovers, as is the hero of Original Sin. Assisting on the Royal Court production of Wedekind's Spring Awakening , Gill mused: 'If only Lulu could be a young man.' Now he's made his idea flesh. If only he'd also breathed life into it. The central figure is a male version of Wedekind's heroine who moves from adored artist's model lounging on a sofa like a Matisse odalisque, too languid to support the weight of a fan of peacock feathers through a galere of elderly rouged gents and smooth-faced young toffs (it's an all-male cast) to death as a rentboy in a dive.
Many have been defeated by Lulu . Nicholas Wright provided the version in which Anna Friel starred at the King's Cross Almeida: an apt venue and an alluring star, but the production straggled. When Richard Eyre was running the National, he thought he'd found in Wedekind's heroine dark, disruptive, insouciantly sexual the perfect vehicle for the late Angela Carter. Carter turned out draft after draft, but her play has never been staged.
And now there's Gill's cruelly over-extended three-and-a-half hours. The conception has a point: make Lulu a boy and you shift its debate in an interesting way. No longer entrammelled in the question of whether the central figure is a symbol of women as victim, the play launches an assault on a ravening decadent market trading in flesh and emotions.
There are moments when Alison Chitty's design and Gill's own direction dovetail to project a pungent atmosphere of fin-de-siecle dissolution. A figure dressed in dusty evening gear (the first of many toppers and topers) scrabbles crow-like across the jet-coloured circle of the Crucible's stage, and vanishes through an aperture in the back wall like a conjurer's assistant. The lights swing excitingly on to a bounty of lillies and chandeliers floating in the dark.
But Gill hasn't overcome the two major obstacles of the play: its ragtag episodic nature (since each bad thing plonks itself down one after another, perhaps Lulu is only ever stageable as a string of music-hall acts?) and the difficulty of persuading an audience that they're seeing someone who's irresistible. Andrew Scott is cute and clever but too obviously capricious, with his clenched white face and determined speech patterns, to serve as the blank surface on which people write their wishes. The real Lulu is a mirror.
Everything that's good about Gill goes wonky. Everyone is a character not a person. Working-class life looks characterful. Stylised speech becomes stultified. Why does everyone keep saying the same thing twice, as if they were signing off a scene in The Archers ? Why, at other times, do they behave as if they were in a children's television programme, squeaking away with obvious commentaries: 'Someone's coming. I'll hide.' Well, don't. . . the rest of the Gill festival is, however, still worth attending.
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