Founder of English Touring Theatre, and an experienced director himself, Stephen Unwin celebrates the director and playwright, who in his 80th year continues to make theatre focused on the human experience
Peter Gill is surely the most charismatic of our great directors. With his shock of brilliant white hair, piercing eyes and elegant clothes, he’s as spritely a figure in his 80th year as the 40-year-old in a black fedora I first met in the foyer of London’s Riverside Studios in the late 1970s.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, the working-class Gill never went to university. In his first job, he and his fellow Welshman, Anthony Hopkins, were assistant stage managers on an Arts Council tour of Look Back in Anger and She Stoops to Conquer, directed by Frank Dunlop. He then worked as an actor at the Royal Shakespeare Company, where, in 1961 and 1962, he played Silvius to Vanessa Redgrave’s legendary Rosalind in As You Like It, and was in Bill Gaskill’s production of Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle, which he later brilliantly recalled in his book Apprenticeship.
Deciding to become a director, Peter cut his teeth at George Devine’s Royal Court in London, where he directed definitive productions of the three great plays by DH Lawrence, among many others. He was the youngest of an extraordinary generation of fine directors and, with The Sleepers Den in 1966, and Over Gardens Out three years later, became a promising playwright.
In 1976, Peter became the first artistic director of the Riverside Studios, where he directed five remarkable productions of classical plays – by Shakespeare, Middleton and Chekhov – as well as hosting remarkable international seasons; he was the first to present the legendary work of Tadeusz Kantor in the UK and gave house room to the band that became the Sex Pistols. It was a special time and, for a few short years, the Riverside was the most significant theatre in London. I certainly saw everything there that I could.
‘He’s devoted to the importance of casting. His productions are overflowing with the lifeblood of British theatre’
Peter joined the National Theatre as associate director in 1980, where he developed his own inimitable aesthetic, perhaps best described as an intensely poetic kind of figurative realism. Often staged with simplicity and brilliant clarity, his productions pay scrupulous attention to class, status and gender, while also bringing out the innate poetry of the piece – be it verbal, visual or theatrical – in the most luminous way imaginable. There’s a rigorous classicism in his work, but the result is fresh, sensual and alive. And while it’s always strikingly designed, at its heart is a (lapsed) Catholic’s celebration of the human form.
But it’s Peter’s own plays that, to my mind, mark out his astonishing contribution. Some are concerned with his own working-class upbringing in Cardiff: Small Change in 1976, Kick for Touch in 1983 and Cardiff East 14 years later. Others are set against the background of historical events: 2002’s Original Sin and, five years ago, Versailles. Still others are meditations on being gay in the modern world: Certain Young Men and The York Realist on either side of the turn of the century.
What links them is the quality of attention: these subtle, acutely observed studies of everyday life show men and women connected to each other by family, work and community, but who are also often strikingly alone. Especially in his signature productions, they’re quietly gripping and surprisingly stirring plays that have lasting appeal.
Having started out on the stage, Peter has real insight into what makes actors tick and although his perfectionism – especially about phrasing – can infuriate, he commands ferocious loyalty from scores of our best actors, many of whom he encouraged at an early stage in their careers. Although he’s directed many stars, most of his work is dependent on a committed ensemble all working to one goal. He’s devoted to the central importance of casting and his productions are overflowing with the lifeblood of the British theatre: alarmingly present actors, sometimes idiosyncratic, but always vivid, tangible and alive.
I first got to know Peter in the early 1980s when he opened the National Theatre Studio. Spending time there was the most intense learning experience of my professional life. He showed me how to look and listen, not just study the text I was directing; how to notice what was actually happening in front of me, not what I had imagined in my head. I learned how class and status ran through the best drama and could be precisely embodied. I observed the way he arranges figures in space, with each gesture and attitude imprinting itself on the retina like an Italian Renaissance painting. And I came to see that character emerges not just through what is said, but how it is said: in other words, that phrasing in the theatre is fundamental.
Peter offered me, and others like me, something else too: an education in thinking. I had come up through the traditional Oxbridge route and he subjected me to a fair amount of joshing, especially my admiration for the European Konzepttheater: the irony, of course, is that Peter is extraordinarily well read and, for all his suspicion of the abstractions of the French and German theatre, is a true internationalist.
But his real point, I realise, was that in my eager embrace of new forms, I shouldn’t underestimate or ignore the existence of a remarkable native theatre culture. His masterpiece, The York Realist (which I’m proud to have premiered at English Touring Theatre) is, among other things, a meditation on the enduring power of the English popular tradition – with all its pragmatism, humanity and subversive questioning of authority.
Many of the things Peter stands for are out of fashion. Above all, he’s a proud anti-conceptual realist with a commitment to the particular demands of the text. But as a child of the 1960s he’s au fait with all the fads of designer theatre, and is no nostalgic conservative. He can be contrary, but he’s staggeringly well informed and all too often in the right.
If the modern British theatre tends to neglect its best directors and playwrights as they grow older, Peter’s presence should remind us that a theatre that tells stories about human beings in all their complexity and contradiction is one that’s most likely to endure in the hearts and minds of its audience.
Stephen Unwin is a director and writer and founder of English Touring Theatre