The works speak for themselves
Peter Gill's work has earned him a place as one of the greatest directors of the past 30 years. The subject of a special theatre festival this week, the prolific writer remains a man of few words on stepping into the spotlight. Lynda Murdin, Yorkshire Post, reports, 31 May 2002
So much praise has recently been heaped on Peter Gill that you'd think he'd be well used to it by now.
But the writer and director finds the idea of the Peter Gill Festival currently being held at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, "slightly embarrassing".
"I'm very, very pleased and thrilled — but I'm trying not to think about it too much," he said beforehand.
"Any form of spotlight has an element of embarrassment. It's a bit alarming, if you're the person. Imagine somebody doing the Lynda Murdin Festival and publishing all your articles as a supplement..."
I suddenly saw what he meant. It does make your blood run cold. But at least Gill himself, if not his work, was able to stay out of the spotlight, hidden in a rehearsal room preparing for the world premiere of his latest play Original Sin, which began previewing last night.
Opening on Wednesday, Original Sin is the centrepiece of the month-long festival which also involves four of Gill's earlier works and a series of talks and workshops. It is inspired by Wedekind's so-called Lulu plays, The Earth Spirit and Pandora's Box, but it follows the changing fortunes of a beautiful boy, rather than a girl. Angel moves easily between the worlds of privilege and poverty in 1890s' Paris and London, then gets caught in a downward spiral involving obsession, money, murder, suicide and white slavery.
Born in Cardiff in 1939, Gill explained he became interested in Wedekind early in his career when he worked on a production of the German playwright's Spring Awakening as assistant director at London's Royal Court Theatre.
He added: "For some reason, a series of ideas came together. I wanted to write a play about the past because I've written such a lot of plays about contemporary life, particularly in South Wales. To rationalise it, it was a collection of things — not set now, different characters, askew look at the darker side of life at the end of the 19th century...
"Then there's Wedekind's boldness. He doesn't bother with niceties. It's not reasonable, the story. The Forsyte Saga is reasonable, the incidents follow one from the other in logical sequence. Life is more odd and Wedekind knew that. His style is not in any way a conventional narrative."
He described Angel as "just a boy who appears to be in the upper echelons but was born in the streets," adding, "I wanted not to write about boys in a Forster-ian image of young men."
He admires the Crucible building and enjoyed directing for the first time in many years on a thrust stage.
"I worked on the original thrust stage in Canada with Tyrone Guthrie who was its great advocate. I did two seasons with him at Stratford, Ontario, but I haven't worked on a thrust for years and years."
Not many directors could claim such elevated early experience. Nor that they turned down an offer from another of theatre's legends, Laurence Olivier, to direct a play in the early days of the National Theatre. Gill now blames a youthful mixture of lack of confidence and arrogance for his refusal. But he has since gone on to work for all the other heads of the National, Peter Hall, Richard Eyre and Trevor Nunn.
Gill's four other plays, being performed in repertory in the Crucible Studio, are Kick for Touch, Small Change, Mean Tears and Friendly Fire. They have separate casts and directors whom Gill left alone "to do exactly what it is they want".
He added: "I don't know what their common themes are, to be honest. Two of them are set in Cardiff. You can't come from Cardiff and not be influenced by it. There are mothers, significantly, in two of the plays but women don't play much of a part in the others."
In total, Gill is the author of more than 20 plays and adaptations and is considered one of the great directors of the last 30 years.
After his spell at the Royal Court, in 1976 he became founder-director of the Riverside Studios at Hammersmith, then moved from there to the National Theatre where he was associate director (1980-1997) and also founded its Studio.
Yet, although he has always been highly regarded in theatrical circles, until recently his name as a playwright was not well known to the wider public.
Then by one of those strange twists of fate, months after Michael Grandage, associate director of Sheffield Theatres, hit on the idea of staging a Peter Gill Festival, earlier this year Gill had a major West End success.
The play was The York Realist, about a relationship between two very different men, John, assistant director working on a production of the York Mystery Plays in the early 1960s, and George, a farm labourer.
Gill was himself assistant director for the York Mystery Plays some 40 years ago — his six-week stint being his only other connection with Yorkshire.
"Some kind of image stayed with me and I wanted to write something I hadn't written before, again set somewhere that wasn't South Wales."
As to his sudden emergence into the public eye, he commented, "It's all to do with perception. I have been fashionable. When I opened at the Riverside Studios, that was all the rage; when I was at the Royal Court, it was at the top of its second flowering. In fine art, you could get the impression there was nobody painting oil on canvas which, of course, people are. Things get pulled into focus by trends and how they are reported.
"Like anyone else, I just get on with my work."
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