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Obituary: Heathcote Williams

Heathcote Williams. Photo: Nils Jorgensen/REX Heathcote Williams. Photo: Nils Jorgensen/REX

A maverick figure who used theatre and poetry to engage with emerging political and social concerns, Heathcote Williams was often anarchically irreverent while also being deeply serious. There wasn’t much, it seemed, that he wasn’t interested in, or had a confrontational view about.

His writing embraced history, politics and the environment; his poetry courted flattering comparisons with William Blake and Percy Bysshe Shelley, and his early stage work with Harold Pinter.

Born in Helsby, Cheshire, the son of a barrister and educated at Eton, an Oxford University law degree was left unfinished as he sought alternative forms of expression, including the underground newspaper International Times.

With Germaine Greer and others, he co-founded Suck magazine, the self-styled “first European sex paper”.

His first book, The Speakers, a verbatim portrait of Speakers’ Corner in London’s Hyde Park, was published in 1964 and adapted for the stage a decade later as the first production by Joint Stock Theatre Company.

By then, Williams had become an established playwright. His first play, The Local Stigmatic, was prompted by a request from Pinter (who had admired The Speakers) for a one-act piece to accompany his own The Dwarfs at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, in 1966. Directed by Peter Gill, The Stage praised its “hideously gripping power”.

Alongside Edward Bond and Christopher Hampton, Williams contributed to The Enoch Show, a scathing profile of the politician Enoch Powell in the aftermath of his notorious “rivers of blood” speech, at London’s Royal Court Upstairs in 1969.

He returned to the venue the following year with AC/DC, an attack on mental health provision described as “a newspaper and a course in psychic ju-jitsu”. It transferred to the Court’s main house and won Williams the George Devine and John Whiting awards. The director Charles Marowitz hailed it as “the first play of the 21st century”.

Few of the original plays that followed achieved comparable success, although The Immortalist – an interview with a 278-year-old man refusing to die – at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield (1977), and Hancock’s Last Half Hour (Bedford Arts Centre, 1978) have been revived.

Three eco-accented poems also enjoyed theatre runs, with Roy Hutchins in Whale Nation (Watermans Arts Centre, 1988) and Autogeddon (Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh, 1992) and Virginia McKenna in Sacred Elephant (Westminster Theatre, 1990).

His final play, The Ruff Tuff Cream Puff Estate Agency – inspired by the agency he set up to advise squatters in the 1970s – was staged as part of Cardboard Citizens’ Home Truths at the Bunker, London, in April this year.

A sometime actor, Williams’ memorable appearances included Prospero in Derek Jarman’s The Tempest (1979), Sally Potter’s Orlando (1992) and Hotel (2001), which he also co-wrote.

Besides his political activism on the page and stage, Williams also took direct action. He was a guiding force in declaring independence in 1977 for Frestonia, an area in London’s North Kensington, for which he declared himself ambassador and the actor David Rappaport foreign secretary. His last poetry collection, American Porn, a critique of Donald Trump, was published earlier this year.

John Henley Jasper Heathcote-Williams was born on November 15, 1941, and died on July 1, aged 75.

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