Godber & Hull Truck: Still Going StrongDate: 19 March 2001
Hull Truck celebrates its 30th anniversary this year and a new season this month. Whatsonstage.comís Mark Shenton speaks to John Godber, artistic director and one of Britainís most performed playwrights, about the company and his part in it.
Just as Scarborough is now indivisible from Alan Ayckbourn - the two are always spoken of in the same theatrical breath - so Hull has its own resident playwright/director, John Godber, who is seemingly forever synonymous with it.
Both Godber and Ayckbourn are also amongst the country's most popular and prolific playwrights, and it's perhaps no accident that the two men have found, in a permanent regional base, the security and stability necessary to achieve such success. For Godber, home is the Hull Truck Theatre, celebrating its thirtieth birthday this year. Godber has steered the company for more than half of its life - 17 years - having assumed the artistic directorship from Mike Bradwell in 1984.
"It's scary when you say it like that," he jovially comments, speaking to me from his Yorkshire home. "I often laughingly say that most people go to London to seek their fortune, whereas I came to Hull. I came to Hull playing amateur rugby in the early 80s, but never thought I'd end up living and working here - 35 minutes from where I was born!"
Home town boy
So how did that happen - and why has he stayed so long? In fact, it was teaching that launched Godber's Hull career. He trained as a drama teacher and became Head of Drama at the same school, Minsthorpe High School, that he had attended as a student. He says now that, when he swapped that job for the one at Hull Truck, he imagined it to be part of a route back to academia: "I had quite an academic background, and thought that if I could last a couple of years at Hull, I might get a job at the University there next. It was a logical focus for me, since I'd also been working towards a PhD". Though he never completed his doctorate, he has since received several honorary ones - "so I feel vindicated for my five years of research".
Godber's study of performance style in another Yorkshire playwright's work - one who committed suicide after a failed production at the National Theatre - has fed directly into his own plays, notably Bouncers, probably Godber's most famous play and the one that made it onto the National Theatre's list of the Top 100 plays of the last century. "Bouncers is an evening of poetry and mind," he says of the play, which is currently being revived at the West End's Whitehall Theatre. "If you ever tried to sell it as an evening of poetry, no one would respond to it. But it's very lyrical in parts, and some of it is rhyming couplets."
Theatre for the masses
Godber is a great advocate of encouraging theatre for the masses. "It's not surprising, given my mining background (he is a miner's son) and my comprehensive school education, that my real urge is to demystify and popularise theatregoing. You've got to stimulate it at grass roots by going into schools. There are so many other leisure activities for people to plug into now, so you've got to also work to maintain the audiences you've got."
It's fascinating to see how he's contributed to the spreading of the word - in fact, what he's done in his own work is to bring the world to the theatre, as much as take the theatre to the world. In Up 'n' Under, his 1984 Olivier award-winning comedy that ran for two years at the West End's Fortune Theatre, he put a rugby game on stage. Other plays have included skiing (On the Piste) and cocktail waitresses (Shakers). "They're all closed worlds," he comments, "so you're able to ring-fence an idea and set up the constraints so you have an interesting way to look at the human condition."
On the horizon
Now in his forties, Godber wrote the first version of Bouncers when he was just 21 (coincidentally, he points out, the play is now 21 years old). Since then, Godber says, he has changed a great deal and his work has changed with him. "My later (work) may lack the energy and visceral edge, but it has a maturity that Bouncers can't attempt to get to. There's less running around and sweating now."
At the moment, Godber is in the midst of writing a play called Our House, due to premiere in Hull later this year. "I want to challenge form, and this is like an art installation piece. It's about a couple leaving a house after living there for 45 years and moving to Spain. It's about what we take with us from place to place."
Meanwhile, plans for a Hull Truck move are also afoot. The Arts Council has pledged £4 million, and a developer has been called in to look at building a new multi-purpose shopping arena, which would include a new theatre. Shopping and theatre - surely that supports the populist effort.
Life outside London
Shopping or no shopping, Godber is committed to staying with Hull Truck. "Over the years, my work has kept the company going, and it has suited me to have a laboratory at the end of the road when I can try out new work. The advantage is that, if you have a stinker, no one knows about it, and the local audience forgives you.
The disadvantage is that you can do a great play and no one gets to see it beyond Hull. It's palpably true and rather regrettable that, in this country, London means a helluva lot more than it ought to mean for the theatre. I've been working here for 18 years, and done some terrific work, but only six have ever gone to London, and I've written 35."