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Obituary: Roland Rees

Roland Rees. Photo: Andra Nelki Roland Rees. Photo: Andra Nelki

As co-founder (with playwright Bernard Pomerance and director David Aukin) of Foco Novo, Roland Rees was a leading figure in fringe and alternative theatre for much of the 1970s and 1980s. Formed in 1972, the company took its name from its inaugural production, Pomerance’s play of the same title, and translates from Portuguese as “new focus”.

In an era in which theatre companies wore their politics on their sleeves, Foco Novo championed new writers and socially relevant, politically topical plays that were widely seen on a touring circuit that included universities, town halls and, in London, the Royal Court, Hampstead Theatre, Oval House, Kilburn Tricycle and the ICA.

Although Aukin would quickly depart to run the Hampstead Theatre – and subsequently, the Leicester Haymarket and become prominent at the National Theatre and with Channel 4 – Rees remained committed to Foco Novo until a withdrawal of arts council funding in 1988 forced the company’s closure.

Rees had first worked with Pomerance in 1970. Newly returned to the UK from doctoral studies (on the Jamaican activist Marcus Garvey) in New York, he directed his debut play, High in Vietnam, for Ed Berman’s Inter-Action at the Almost Free Theatre. The pair enjoyed greater success with The Elephant Man. First seen at the Hampstead Theatre in 1977, it soon found its way on to Broadway and film, although Rees was absent from both. He returned to the play in 1980 for a revival at the National Theatre.

A staunch advocate for new writing, he enjoyed productive relationships with emerging writers who would go on to define the era, among them Edward Bond (Black Mass at the Oval House, 1970), Trevor Griffiths (Occupations, for 7:84, in 1972) and Howard Brenton, several of whose early short plays Rees premiered, along with 1984’s Bloody Poetry.

His support for writers of African, Indian and Caribbean origin was no less solid, his collaborations with Mustapha Matura, Tunde Ikoli and Alfred Fagon (in whose name Rees later established a still-thriving new writing competition) especially significant. He directed Matura’s first play, Black Pieces, in 1970, and the following year, his portrait of West Indians in London, As Time Goes By, for Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre (subsequently seen at the Royal Court) and again, two years later, at the ICA.

Under Rees’ stewardship following Aukin’s departure to Hampstead, Foco Novo pursued a broad remit, presenting Ikoli’s collaboration with Brenton, Sleeping Policemen (1983) and Ikoli’s own reworking of Gorky, The Lower Depths: An East End Story and Banged Up (both 1986).

There were biting examinations of 1960s Greece under the Colonels in Dic Edwards’ Looking for the World (1986), James Pettifer’s unstinting commentary on the Spanish Civil War, Needles of Light (1987) and, in a co-production with Leicester Haymarket, 1988’s Consequences – a portmanteau piece whose nine ‘established and famous’ writers included Brenton, Griffiths, Tom Stoppard and Snoo Wilson.

When Foco Novo collapsed in 1988, Rees directed student productions at RADA and the Drama Centre, worked
for the British Council and wrote a book, Fringe First, based on interviews with his fringe theatre contemporaries.

In 1994, he directed Edwards’ Wittgenstein’s Daughter at the White Bear, Kensington and was reunited with Matura for A Small World at the Southwark Playhouse in 1996.

In recent years, he suffered from the onset of Parkinson’s disease and the effects of a stroke.

Roland David Gwyn Rees was born in Llanishen, Cardiff, on January 13, 1941. He died on September 2, aged 73, and is survived by his wife, costume designer Sheelagh Killeen.

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