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Obituary: William Gaskill

William Gaskill directing Mark Carroll and Melisande Cook in What’s in Alaska? from Carver at the Arcola Theatre, London, in 2005. Photo: Tristram Kenton William Gaskill directing Mark Carroll and Melisande Cook in What’s in Alaska? from Carver at the Arcola Theatre, London, in 2005. Photo: Tristram Kenton

A Brechtian at heart, William Gaskill made eloquent platforms for change of the Royal Court Theatre, London, and the Joint Stock Theatre Company in the 1960s and 1970s, as British theatre wrenched itself free from the confines of the drawing room comedy and the constrictions of high office censorship.

In the seven years he led the Royal Court, Gaskill transformed the Sloane Square venue into the conscience of a society in change, championing new writers who revelled in the madcap and the macabre.

His first production as artistic director set the tone in controversial style, when Edward Bond’s Saved shocked audiences in 1965 and prompted a legal battle over its dystopian violence. Bond, who owed something himself to Brecht’s concept of alienation, was to be a touchstone writer for Gaskill’s tenure at the Court.

In 1967, the pair reunited for Bond’s distinctive take on Chekhov’s The Three Sisters (starring Glenda Jackson, Avril Elgar and Marianne Faithfull) and Early Morning the next year. That, too, created a stir, its lesbian scene between Queen Victoria and Florence Nightingale prompting a police ban on public performances.

Gaskill worked again with Bond in 1971, when Harry Andrews gave a granitic performance as the titular Lear, and together a final time in 1973 on The Sea.

With the touring company Joint Stock – co-founded with director Max Stafford-Clark and playwright David Hare in 1974 – Gaskill’s work took on a more pronounced political edge. The company’s first play, Hare’s Fanshen, took at a stylised look at Mao’s communist reforms in a production with an obvious debt to Brecht.

The following year’s premiere of Heathcote Williams’ The Speakers (featuring a young Simon Callow) inked in the Joint Stock credo, as did Stephen Lowe’s adaptation of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists in 1978.

Returning to the Royal Court in 1981 saw Gaskill partnering again with Lowe for a revival of Touched and the uneven Himalayan-set Tibetan Inroads.

In 1957, he directed NF Simpson’s A Resounding Tinkle in a Royal Court production without decor.

He returned to the play in a fully-staged double bill with The Hole in 1958, and worked again with Simpson in 1959 on One Way Pendulum, The Stage deeming Gaskill’s direction “notable for its masterly matter-of-fact projection of the ridiculous”.

Later, he directed Nicholas Wright’s The Gorky Brigade at the Court (1979), Michael Wilcox’s searing portrait of two male prostitutes, Rents (Lyric Hammersmith, 1984) and collaborated with Charles Woods on two adaptations of Pirandello for the National Theatre: Man, Beast and Virtue, with Terence Rigby as the beastly Captain Perella (1989) and The Mountain Giants (1993).

He didn’t always succeed with new plays. In 1984, he rejected Barrie Keeffe’s Better Times for London’s Half Moon Theatre only to struggle to create an improvised alternative, forcing the theatre to go dark.

Gaskill was equally interested in classic texts, directing Beaumont and Fletcher’s Knights of the Burning Pestle with the Oxford University Drama Society in 1950 and assisting Tony Richardson on Wycherley’s The Country Wife in 1955.

With the Royal Shakespeare Company, his 1961 production of Richard III introduced a memorably despotic Christopher Plummer to British audiences for the first time. Unabashedly influenced by the Berliner Ensemble, his staging of Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle for the RSC in 1962 was “imaginative, bold, spacious and commanding” (The Stage). Brecht’s influence was also felt in the same year’s Cymbeline, starring Vanessa Redgrave, at the RSC.

In 1966, he directed Macbeth at the Royal Court, the production hampered by the French film star Simone Signoret but boasting a concentrated and intense performance from Alec Guinness in the lead role.

Three years earlier, he made his first venture into the commercial West End with Peter O’Toole as Brecht’s Baal at the Phoenix Theatre, simultaneously directing his first production for the National Theatre (then based at the Old Vic Theatre) with The Recruiting Sergeant, featuring Laurence Olivier’s show-stealing performance as Captain Brazen.

With the National, he went on to direct John Marston’s The Dutch Courtesan (1964), Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children (1965), John Arden’s Armstrong’s Last Goodnight (driven along by Albert Finney in swashbuckling style, 1965) and Harley Granville Barker’s The Madras House, lit up by a blazing performance from Paul Scofield (1977).

In 1976 he directed opera for the first time, Rossini’s The Barber of Seville (revived in 1981) and Puccini’s La Boheme with Welsh National Opera.

For the Edinburgh International Festival, he directed The Voysey Inheritance (whose cast included Michael Codron) in 1992 and a revival of Arden’s Armstrong’s Last Goodnight in 1994.

His sole Broadway production saw Nicol Williamson playing John Osborne’s The Entertainer in 1983, although he returned to New York in 1990 to direct a much-admired off-Broadway Othello featuring a largely unknown cast.

In retirement, he taught at RADA before returning to the stage in 2005 to dramatise and direct short stories by the American novelist Raymond Carver for London’s Arcola Theatre. He staged his last production, Adrian Mitchell’s re-working of Calderon de la Barca’s mystery play, The Great Theatre of the World, there in 2007.

Born in Shipley, West Yorkshire, his teacher-father encouraged his early interest in theatre. He began directing while a student at Oxford and later studied with Etienne Decroux in Paris. He began his theatre career as an actor in regional rep and with the London Players before directing his first play in Redcar in 1954 and securing a trainee director appointment with Granada Television.

In 1963, he was instrumental in establishing the Drama Centre in London and published a memoir, A Sense of Direction: Life at the Royal Court, in 1988.

William Gaskill was born on June 24, 1930, and died on February 4 aged 85.

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