Throughout my entire childhood, all I wanted was to be an actress. My parents were in the theatre, so I suppose that was not surprising. I imagined myself as Juliet, as Cordelia, as Titania, and could recite whole speeches in the privacy of my room. When I was just turned seventeen, I auditoned for one of the big London drama schools. To my great disappointment they said I was too young, and asked me to come back next year. So there I was with a year to fill. Luckily, a director who worked with my father offered me the chance of a job in a very lowly capacity on a production he was doing at the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith. You've heard of ASMs -- Assistant Stage Managers -- well, I was the assistant to the ASM, or general dogsbody/runner. The real ASM was a dark, skinny boy from Cardiff who was a few years older than me. His name was Peter Gill, and he had come to London to break into the theatre, probably as an actor. We became instant friends and were soon inseparable. No hanky panky, as Peter was not into girls, just endless conversations and much laughter. My mother adored him, and soon he was living in a room in our house.
Over the years our lives have gone in different directions. Acting turned out to be not for me after all, and we see each other rarely, but I still think of Peter as one of my dearest friends. Of course he went on to have a brilliant career, though acting fell quite quickly by the wayside (you will have seen him in Zulu, if you were paying attention) and he went on to become a celebrated director and playwright -- you can see the details on Wikipedia if you're interested. His plays -- just fifteen of them, spanning a period of nearly fifty years -- have finally been given the attention they deserve in this new study by the young director and playwright Barney Norris. In an early chapter, Norris sets out his intentions in writing the book:
This book is about the use of art as a response to life, as a mechanism for clarifying and paying attention to the life that is going on around us by isolating what we love through staging it or writing it down, in order to pay it the attention that is so difficult to give to anything amid the noise of the everyday; it is about how that allows us to confront and make sense of our lives, and it is about re-living as being central to the business of living. It is a book about how things become clearer when we look at them through artifice and re-enactment...
I suppose if you wanted to put this more simply, Norris is saying that Gill's plays draw closely on his own experiences and take place in a world he inhabits himself. That's not to say that they are all autobiographical, but rather that they are based on his close and sensitive observation of what goes on around him. Thus many of his early plays, written between the 1960s and the 1980s, take place in the working-class Cardiff of his childhood. There are strong, unhappy matriarchs, young men who don't know what to do with their lives. Above all, and this seems to be an over-riding theme in Gill's plays, there is a lack of communication, a terrible sense of isolation, a frustration with an unsatisfactory life which the characters feel powerless to change.
With Into the Blue (1985) and Mean Tears (1987), both produced at the National Theatre where Gill was an associate director, the action moves to London, though the characters are still trapped in a unhappy world from which there seems no escape. In Into the Blue it is a world of rent boys and down and outs, while Mean Tears, argues Norris, is a major play about the psychological revolution engendered by Thatcherism. In the plays that followed, Cardiff East and Certain Young Men, Gill continued with the humanism of his early work, but expanded to a larger scale, addressing complex social questions. In 2002 appeared his award-winning The York Realist, an ultimately tragic story of two men -- a theatre director and farm worker -- whose love for each other is sabotaged by the complete discontinuity of their lives, while his most recent play, Versailles (2014) is an explicit political statement of the events surrounding the First World War and their repercussions in the present day.
Interesting and varied though the subject matter of the plays may be, they are obviously linked not only by their humanism but also by their increasingly experimental style. Gill has said that his plays begin as fragments, snatches of dialogue that he notes down as they come to him and that only after time coalesce into a perfomable play. So, though he has been described as a social realist, he is also a writer whose postmodernist approach seems to be strongly influenced by the work of Samuel Beckett, who he much admires. When you put Chekhov into the mix, and DH Lawrence, whose plays Gill was the first ever to direct, you end up with a rich and unique body of work, one which I felt that Norris explored with great sensitivity and perceptiveness. Here's his last word on Gill's achievement:
What he has always done in his theatre is try to reveal to us the currents of extraordinary and powerful feeling that are always running beneath the surface of everyone. Through loving attention, to reveal the love within every person in his work that motivates and explains them.
I was delighted to be sent a review copy of this book by the publishers, Seren Books, so thanks to them. And thanks to Barney Norris for bringing me closer to someone I knew well, but had never seen from quite this perspective before.