Phil Morris talks to Peter Gill, one of the towering figures of modern British theatre.
During a call with Peter Gill to arrange a time and place for this interview, I casually mention that his flat is located just around the corner from my old drama school. He quickly name-checks two of my former teachers as his former assistants, clearly this is to establish a quick rapport between us rather than intimidate me with the reach of his career. Nonetheless, I am a little intimidated.
Gill’s theatrical career is one of the most distinguished of any Welsh artist. He first worked as a jobbing actor before becoming a director. At the Royal Court he rescued a trilogy of plays by D.H. Lawrence from literary oblivion and made them part of the modern repertory. It was at the Royal Court that he also directed two of his own early plays, The Sleeper’s Den and Over Garden’s Out. In the mid-seventies, he was appointed the first Artistic Director of the Riverside Studios, where in addition to staging his own celebrated version of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard he commissioned works from the likes of Athol Fugard and Tadeusz Kantor.
As Associate Director of the Royal National Theatre during the eighties and nineties, Gill set up the National Studio and wrote and directed a number of plays including; Kick for Touch, Mean Tears and Cardiff East. This September sees a production of Gill’s new version of Uncle Vanya, directed by Tamara Harvey at Theatr Clwyd. It represents a theatrical homecoming of sorts for Gill, and presents Welsh audiences with an opportunity to acclaim the work of one of our most important living writers.
Phil Morris: Having spent most of your career in London, how does it feel to have your work staged in Wales?
Peter Gill: Well, about two weeks ago, I went home to Cardiff for my brother’s funeral. I organised it, chose the music. My nephews were bearers. We went to the club to have food afterwards, and there was a huge turn-out of people, some of whom I’ve known since I was a little boy. And yet I don’t know anybody in the cultural world in South Wales. So I’m disconnected in some deep way while not being disconnected in another.
Which is strange for me, because as a young man developing an interest in theatre, I’d go to my local library and read up on the theatre of the previous thirty years. One of the names that kept coming up was Peter Gill. And I remember thinking to myself, here is a Welshman who’s made his mark in London by creating the most important theatre productions. Your career is an inspiration to me as it is, I’m sure, for many others in Wales.
I’m glad to hear that. When I was young, I often went to Cardiff library, where there was a theatre section. It was exactly the same for me, only I read about people such as Peggy Ashcroft and the like. And the thing is, I got to meet and work with many of them.
I think theatre is a world in which self-transformation across class boundaries can be realised.
Yes absolutely! On my eighteenth birthday, I was doing a dress rehearsal of a play and couldn’t get back to a friend’s house where I was staying. The play’s designer was Henriette Sturge-Moore, who had a lot of white hair, big teeth and was kind. And she said, “Well, come home with me and stay the night”. So I went with her to Hampstead, and it turned out her house had once been that of the painter John Constable. Her father was the poet Thomas Sturge-Moore (a friend of Yeats) and her uncle was the philosopher G.E. Moore. And that was my first night in London! All courtesy of a sweet and generous woman who was too posh to think anything of it. The theatre was and still is an incredibly welcoming place.
You originally trained in your hometown Cardiff?
Yes, I was at the Welsh college. In those days it was based in the Castle, and some of the boys, including Tony Hopkins – who was in the year above me – had digs there. It wasn’t a drama school in the way people understand it now. We simply put on lots of plays. But in Britain at that time, there were a lot of wonderful German and middle-European movement teachers, including Laban who taught in Bradford. Rudi Shelly was a similar figure at the Bristol Old Vic, and he came across to Cardiff and taught us several times. I performed a bit of Hamlet for him, and I could tell in some signal that he gave me – which is what education is all about – that acting was something that I could do. I only met Shelly a few times, but that gave me confidence.
When I left the college, I heard there was a tour going out, centred in London, to theatre-less areas in South Wales and the north-east. So I wrote a letter to the company director Frank Dunlop, and a reply came saying, be in St. James Square in Westminster at 11:30 on some such day. My mother lent me money for train fare, and I went and did an audition of totally unsuitable pieces from Tennessee Williams. I must’ve looked about 14. Frank told me later that he couldn’t not give me a job because my audition was too painful. I was extremely lucky I suppose. So I worked as an ASM on Frank’s production of Look Back in Anger, and he needed another young actor to do the same. So I said to Frank, “I know just the person you ought to have”. I rang Tony Hopkins at his mother’s shop and told him there was a job going and to get on a train. We both did the tour. This was before Tony went to RADA.
You worked as an actor for nearly ten years before making the move into directing. How did you become involved with the Royal Court Theatre?
Well, I wrote a letter to the Court and was invited to do a general audition for its casting director Miriam Brickman. I got a job understudying in Willis Hall’s The Long and the Short and the Tall, which Lyndsey Anderson directed, and I took over one of the parts when it transferred to the West End – the other understudy incidentally was Michael Caine. I also did a few one-off Sunday nights at the Court, often in small roles, including the first ever performance of Arnold Wesker’s The Kitchen. At the same time, I had a room in a house owned by George Devine’s wife. I also did an acting job for John Dexter at the Lyric Hammersmith. So I came to know those who made the Court famous, people like Tony Richardson and my good friend Bill Gaskell. Gradually, I became part of the world of the Royal Court. It suited me temperamentally.
Had you always wanted to be a director?
I always wanted to be in the theatre. When I was young, I had no conception of what a director did exactly. I became an actor. I was not a poor actor but I think I was not a considerable one. I always worked. Somebody recently sent me that picture up there, which is of me in a film…
(Looking at a production still, propped up on a bookcase.)
You were in Zulu?
Yes, another small role, Private Williams. I won the VC in that as I remember. (Laughs) But I got to a point, when I didn’t get put up for some film and – this is how arrogant I was back then – I thought well that’s it, and I gave up acting. Zulu was my one of my last acting jobs.
By then, I was much more interested in what was going on at places like the Court and Stratford East, under Joan Littlewood. I was at the RSC briefly during Peter Hall’s tenure, and acted in a very interesting production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle directed by Bill Gaskell. He was a tough, analytical director. He had us do all these improvisations and through that I became fascinated by the process of directing.
You also began writing for the theatre at around the same time, why was that?
Well, I’d always sort of written things but in an unacknowledged way, perhaps even to myself. In fact, I got a short piece published in a magazine called Wales, which Keidrych Rhys ran from an office in Great Newport Street. In all honesty my piece was absolutely terrible, but it got published. So I had this secret thing about writing going on – because I wasn’t a natural essayist or anything like that – until I wrote a short piece, under a pseudonym, and entered it into a playwriting competition held by the Transatlantic Review. One day, I was out walking with Bill Gaskell and he said, “Would you read this? I’m judging this competition and they’re all terrible plays, but there’s one set in Wales that’s just a bit better.” And I said, my intuitive nature being very good, “Before you go any further, I can tell you I wrote that piece.” Now if it had been Peter Hall, he would’ve bit on the bullet and said this play by Peter Gill shows talent. But Bill being Bill, said these plays were all terrible though mine was the least terrible. Which is not what a very egocentric nineteen-year-old wants to hear.
But perhaps needs to hear?
(Laughs) Yes, but not written in a magazine, you know what I mean?
It couldn’t have knocked your confidence that much, because in 1966 you adapted Chekhov’s novella My Life for the stage as A Provincial Life for the Royal Court.
My Life is the most wonderful story, which I don’t think I fully understood then. Only later did I realise the extent to which it is a satire of Chekhov’s relationship with Tolstoy. At the time I was haunted by this tale of a middle-class educated young man, who didn’t want to be a revolutionary but wanted to live the life of a manual labourer instead.
Your interest in the works of Chekhov is an abiding feature of your career, from its earliest days through to this new Uncle Vanya. What is it about Chekhov that so fascinates you?
I always found Chekhov a bit of a puzzle. I find that even a poor production of an Ibsen play will hold an audience in its grasp, whereas a poor production of Chekhov doesn’t get hold of an audience at all. When I was appointed the first Artistic Director of the Riverside Studios in 1976, I was determined to open our first season with The Cherry Orchard. And people said to me – you can’t do Chekhov in a huge empty hangar. But I was brought up to think, well, why not? I do remember finding it almost impossible to adapt initially, because Chekhov is like quicksilver. You have to understand that Russian is this strangely compressed language, completely different to English in many ways, you find yourself, as a translator having to open up Chekhov’s language as you write each line of dialogue.
In 1995, you directed a version of Uncle Vanya, translated by Frank McGuinness and starring Stephen Rea. What would you say are the most significant differences between McGuinness’ translation and yours?
I’d say Frank’s version was very Irish, as it was meant to be.
You mean more lyrical and self-consciously poetic?
Yes, but the funny thing is, I read one line in which a character said something like, “Ah, the roses of autumn…” And wondered if Frank had rather overdone the Irish thing, but that’s exactly what it said in the original Russian word for word. (Laughs)
Many English language Chekhov translations feel like they’re set in Wimbledon. The English intellectual classes have a particular fondness for Chekhov. Although in my view, Vanya and Astrov are emphatically not from Surrey.
My translation of Uncle Vanya is set in Russia but the focus is less on its sense of place, and more on the relationship between Vanya and Astrov. Their friendship is so wonderfully observed by Chekhov. Neither are particularly brilliant, brilliant men but both are highly intelligent relative to the people with whom they’re surrounded. I mean, they’re stuck in the middle of fucking nowhere culturally speaking, with nobody else to talk to that understands the world in the way that they do. And they’re both locked into what one might call a universal European notion of being under the spell of a beautiful woman.
In this case, the character of Elena, onto which both men project their idealised desires. But she seems quite an empty person to me, even superficial.
Yes, but she sort of knows it, doesn’t she?
And aware that all the attention Vanya and Astrov lavish upon her is somehow unwarranted.
Well, isn’t that the story of every beautiful person? Isn’t that the story of Marilyn Monroe? Not that Elena is meant to be like Marilyn Monroe, of course.
Do you think of Astrov as a self-portrait?
Partly he must be.
I mean there’s something of the hedonist about him. He drinks, he chases women, but that’s in contrast to his social-mindedness.
Industrialisation in the part of the Russian Empire that Chekhov came from was really, very upsetting to him. In the midst of all this natural beauty all these ghastly Merthyrs were springing up.
An aspect of Uncle Vanya that makes Chekhov seem so prescient today is Astrov’s ecological concerns. Was that something that interested you?
Not really. Except for the notion that he’s giving up his life to a cause. As I’ve said, I was more interested in how these two desperate men interacted with each other. When I was writing their dialogue, I don’t know why exactly, but I kept thinking about John Osborne and Harold Pinter, not as writers but as men. I enjoyed writing this version enormously. It’s a more confident translation than I’ve done before, it’s just freer while at the same time being very much true to what the play is.
You use the word free, yet it seems to me, in comparison to many other versions, very compact, more concise.
Edward Bond’s version of Three Sisters is very good for that, for just not hanging about.
There seems to me a real determination on your part to resist sentimentality.
Your version isn’t austere exactly, but it’s very down to earth, even matter of fact.
Chekhov, as a writer, is famously difficult to grasp because his language is very simple in one way, and yet he’s also able to evoke extremely complex emotions.
Both Vanya and Astrov appear obsessed with legacy and posterity. They have this ability to project ahead of themselves, to imagine how people “a thousand years from now” will look back at them.
When I did a production of Turgenyev’s A Month in the Country at the National Theatre, I used a version by Isiah Berlin. And he wrote me a letter in which he said that, Russian cultural life during Chekhov’s time was very different to that of the English, in the sense that Russians were highly conscious of their culture having only really started in the early nineteenth century.
You mean bourgeois culture?
No, I think he meant in terms of an engagement with European civilisation. I don’t know whether it’s true or not. But Berlin thought that many educated Russians of that era felt it was their duty, as it were, to be cultivated.
If Astrov and Vanya conceive of their culture as not much more than a hundred years old, then that culture would seem more fragile, less secure to them. It’s not merely a question of bourgeois affectation.
Yes and they’re miles and miles away from a major city, where they might encounter people as clever as they are, and they’re surrounded instead by these awful Serebryakovs, or by absolutely boring, pig-faced, Gogolesque religious types. All they have to sustain them is a love of women and this kind of shared wavelength. Astrov has given his life over to growing and maintaining the local forests, and Vanya has spent decades supporting the academic career of his brother-in-law Serebryakov, who is supposedly more clever and successful. So when Elena, this beautiful woman, comes into the house, it strikes Vanya, perhaps for the first time, he’s wasted his life really.
There’s a tremendous sense of waste in the play; wasted lives, wasted beauty, wasted love. And yet the play isn’t depressing at all.
That’s because Chekhov has this spiritual quality to his writing, doesn’t he?
Spiritual as in a poetically vivid consciousness of life rather than a religious belief in God?
Yes, I think that’s what it is.
The play ends with Sonya’s encomium to the redemptive power of work. You’re a prolific writer-director, still working well into your seventies. Do you have a similar sense of work as something that redeems?
You have to remember, I was brought up a Catholic. So I was taught that life was deeply vocational. My oldest brother Bernard was a brilliant boilermaker. Going to work for him mattered. At a family funeral, I remember an old Irishman telling me that there was nothing Bernard couldn’t do with a bit of steel. One family friend needed a new poker – now pokers were made like bakestones in those days, my cousins still have my grandmother’s bakestone – so Bernard made her one. He really refined it, went to the turner’s shop and made it beautiful. About a year later, I saw this same poker in the lady’s grate and asked her why it hadn’t been used. She said that it was too nice to use. I suppose I have a similar sense of vocation as Bernard.
When you make a play you have to make it well and make it right?
I’m a bit obsessive, yes. But I also think, well everyone in the theatre has to have a sense of vocation, don’t they?
Peter Gill’s version of Uncle Vanya by Anton Chekhov, a Theatr Clwyd & Sheffield Theatres production directed by Tamara Harvey, opens at Theatr Clwyd on 21st September 2017 and runs until 14th October 2017.
For ticket information go to – https://www.theatrclwyd.com/en/whats-on/uncle-vanya/