Writer and director Peter Gill started his career as an actor, performing with the Royal Shakespeare Company and, on film, as Private 612 Williams in the 1964 film Zulu, starring Michael Caine.
His first play, The Sleepers Den, was mounted at the Royal Court in 1965 and was followed over the years by Over Gardens Out, Small Change, Kick for Touch, In the Blue, Mean Tears, Certain Young Men, Cardiff East and Friendly Fire.
It was also in the mid-1960s that Gill became an assistant director at the Royal Court Theatre, going on to become an associate director in 1970. Later, he was the founder director of London's Riverside Studios in Hammersmith, a founding director of the Royal National Theatre Studio and, from 1980 to 1997, an associate director at the National itself.
During the past four decades, for the above and other theatres, Gill has directed countless productions by playwrights including John Osborne, Joe Orton, DH Lawrence, Edward Bond, Christopher Hampton, Nicholas Wright, Sam Shephard, David Mamet and Harold Pinter, as well as many of his own plays. Earlier this year, he had great success with his new play, The York Realist, which transferred to the West End after a UK tour and an extended sell-out season at the Royal Court.
This month, Sheffield's Crucible Theatre celebrates the work of Peter Gill with a dedicated season - showcasing five of his plays as well as a full schedule of discussions, readings and seminars - running to 22 June 2002. The centrepiece of the season is the premiere of Original Sin, directed by Gill himself.
Set in 1890s Paris and London, Original Sin traces the fortunes of Angel, a beautiful boy catapulted from poverty to privilege when he becomes the plaything of a wealthy newspaper proprietor. But the streetboy-turned-socialite's rapid success turns as swiftly to self-destruction in a downward spiral of money, murder and white slavery.
Date & place of birth
Born 7 September 1939 in Cardiff, Wales.
Lives now in
Hammersmith, west London
First big break
Being taken on at Royal Court Theatre in 1964. It was the most important theatre at the time and to be an assistant director there when I was 24 meant I was very lucky. It was an extremely exciting time, the period just after the beginning in the 1950s. George Devine was still running it and people like John Osborne and Edward Bond were becoming very well known. It was wonderful, particularly if you're interested in new plays as I am, and the juxtaposition of classes. It felt significant even then.
What do you think of the term "angry young men" that is often applied to the playwrights of the Royal Court in the 1950s?
It's a nonsense term and I could never really identify with it since it was ten years before my time. There was a lot of rage in John Osborne but really he was just writing kitchen sink drama about everyday life. Even that, though, the term "kitchen sink drama" is unfair; it was invented as a convenient journalists' label, a sort of class statement from the right-wing press of the time. Before then, you hardly ever saw a kitchen sink onstage and it made it sound dull.
How do you believe that British theatre has changed since the 1960s?
When I started out, there was a healthy-ish regional theatre that we all came from, lots of repertory companies for actors to try out their muscles in. In London, there was the West End of course but no fringe or pub theatres and only two interesting theatres of any note, the Royal Court and Joan Littlewood's Theatre Royal at Stratford East. Theatre has also changed in the way that television has come so much more into the story. A touring play won't go out now without a TV name, not that I have any problem with actors from TV. Things have got a little bit more convention in my view too, more professional and middle class, less varied in terms of social mix, more homogenous. But I'm not saying any of this is good or bad.
I've been very lucky in the plays I've directed so it's difficult to choose highlights. I suppose the Royal Court season of DH Lawrence plays - I directed the first public performances of three of them. Opening Riverside Studios in 1976. Just generally being connected with so many writers from Shaw to Joe Orton to Heathcote Williams. I started my career by acting and I wrote my first play but then I very quickly got into directing and didn't write on a frequent enough basis to think of myself as a writer. My trade has always been directing first.
I'm not being arch when I say there are more writers that I like than don't like. Most writers produce something at some point that I like. Directing is a different matter. I'm not saying writing's easy, but we produce better writers for stage than we do directors.
Favourite directors Stage directing is a very hard trade. It's not commonly understood just how hard it is. I never went into film because my interest was in theatre, but film directing is easier. You can never direct a great film without a great talent. But it is more of a collective and if you can deal with all the other people well - the lighting, camera, sound and editing people - collectively they can help you make something better than you might make it on your own. In theatre, there is no such help really. The process of working has to produce the event and you simply can't conceal a duff performance like you can in film.
What play (by someone else) would you most like to have written?
Three Sisters by Chekhov. Outside of Shakespeare or the Greeks, it's the greatest play ever written. How does he manage to get you so fascinated about the live of these upper middle class girls in Russia? That sheer skill of his - the ability to engage - is a mystery to me. Why should these people interest you? Three Sisters is a very hard play to do. I've directed two other Chekhovs, but never Three Sisters though I'd like to.
What advice would you give the government to secure the future of British theatre?
Education, education, education. It's no good blaming theatre for only attracting grey-haired ladies. But in subsidised theatre, which is what I know best, we are blamed for not attracting and educating young audiences. Subsidies always come with these conditions. The politicians try to hang responsibilities on the arts that they'd never do in the health service, say. They wouldn't ask a consultant doctor to do a first aid course. Why would you ask Maggie Smith to do an after-show talk? We're continually asked to do these things that are not within our remit, the assumption is that we need to pay back our subsidy in a different way.
And just to go off on one, when handing out money, the government is also increasingly lumbering subsidised theatres with management techniques that have failed in other sectors. It's ridiculous this notion that management didn't exist until the industrial revolution. Historically, theatre as an industry has always been very well managed. One of the best managers you could ever find was George Devine. He made budgets and inspired staff and did all these things that people run courses for today. Now these American models that the Americans have already given up on have been visited on my trade. There's too much bureaucracy, too much justification required for subsidy. It's stifling.
There's never enough either. The post-war thresholds originally set by Maynard Keynes got started too low and there's never been any way out of it since then because it always sounds as if we're whining. But it anyone ever did a scientific study, I'm sure they'd find that the money invested in theatre subsidies has been made back many many times over. Just think about all the money made from Edward Bond's plays for instance, performance all over the world still. More cash is the ideal, of course, but if you're not careful, the politicians will just try to set more conditions for it.
If you hadn't become involved in theatre, what would you have done professionally?
I would have been docker. I came from a family of dockers in Cardiff and I didn't go to university so I'm sure that's where I would have ended up.
What's the last thing you saw on stage that you really enjoyed?
The Island by Winston Ntshona and Athol Fugard. I'd seen it before and I saw it again this year when it was in London again. I was happy to be reminded of the extraordinary work that those two have created together.
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens and Middlemarch by George Eliot.
Favourite holiday destination
London. Another part of London, other than Hammersmith. I'm not a holiday person really.
What was your inspiration for Original Sin?
I wanted to write a play set in the past and I wanted to write about a part of London, because I've written a lot of plays set in Cardiff. And I've always been fascinated with Wedekind. Original Sin takes its inspiration from Wedekind's Lulu plays. It's kind of skewed look at a Victorian London that doesn't have Bosie Douglas in it.
Why did you choose to write a period rather than a contemporary piece?
I've always thought I wrote plays set mainly in today. But my last three plays have all been set in different periods, so this must be something I've been thinking about though I wasn't aware of it. Victorian Britain was very interesting. There was so much hypocrisy and such power of money and of men, but there was an amazing dark side that had to be hidden. I wanted to look at that part of male life from that perspective.
How do you feel having Sheffield Crucible dedicate a season to celebrating your career as a playwright?
I've been trying not to think about it. I suppose it's flattering but it's also alarming. I haven't been involved in rehearsals for any of the other productions.
How do you feel having other directors interpret your plays?
I find it curious but encouraging. It makes me see the plays in a new way and I've never really disagreed with their decisions as directors. It's encouraging to think that the play can work on their own without me.
What are your plans for the future?
I haven't got any plans as nobody's offered me a production to direct. I don't want to write another play at this point but I expect I'll have to.
Original Sin continues at the Sheffield Crucible until 22 June 2002. It runs concurrently with Gill's Kick for Touch, Small Change, Mean Tears and Friendly Fire, performed in repertory in the Crucible Studio.