Apprenticeship by Peter Gill

Reviewed by Harriet

Born in Cardiff in 1939, Peter Gill is a distinguished theatre director and playwright. But he started his career as an actor in the early 1960s, working first at the Royal Court Theatre and later at the Royal Shakespeare Company. It’s this later event that forms the foundation of this book, in the form of a diary kept by Gill while he was rehearsing for a 1962 production by William Gaskill of Brecht’s  Caucasian Chalk Circle.The diary itself, with Gill’s comments, makes up Part Two of this deceptively slim volume, but Part One puts it into context by offering the story of Gill’s life up to this point, swooping off into a breathtaking journey through the history of British theatre, mainly in the twentieth century, with Gill’s sharp and profound thoughts on the ways in which it developed.

It’s something of a cliché to remark that the British theatre was pretty much in the doldrums before the mid-1950s when the Royal Court and Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop burst onto the scene. But Gill brings the background to this period vividly to life:.

In the British theatre it seemed as if, between 1918 and 1945, nothing but the fears and miseries of the middle class had been dramatised, as if nothing of significance happened to anyone who wasn’t well-heeled.

Among the West End trivia were verse plays by TS Eliot , Christopher Fry and their followers, in one of which Gill appeared at the Arts Theatre and describes as ‘unutterable tosh’.  Although after the war the class base of the theatre shifted somewhat in the direction of inclusiveness, but the directors were almost without exception the product of Oxbridge: Oxford for the Royal Court, Cambridge for the RSC. Gill describes the early days of the Royal Court, and the various strengths of its most celebrated directors: Tony Richardson, Lindsay Anderson, William Gaskill and John Dexter. He debunks the received idea that this was a writers’ theatre, pointing out that the writers had no influence outside what they produced. Acting, on the other hand, was elevated to a high level of importance, ‘an almost ideological touchstone’. But he is critical of some aspects of the theatre, whose personality he describes as ‘by turns nurturing and abusive’.  Nevertheless it had a sense of family and a purity of purpose that makes it the one place he has worked where ‘the idea of a serious theatre prevailed over individual ambition’, besides being a place of genuine sweetness and fun. Not the case, as will appear, with the RSC.

In Part Two Gill moves on to Gaskill’s production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle. Gaskill had been an associate director at the Royal Court for a number of years before this, and would go on to take over the running of the theatre in the second half of the 1960s. This was to be his first production at the RSC, and he had some highly radical ideas about how to proceed with the rehearsal period. At the beginning he more or less abandoned any work on the text of the play or on staging, concentrating instead on working with the masks the actors were to wear and on improvisation of scenes not in any obvious way related to the play itself. This procedure, which produced some startlingly good results though it rather confused some of the actors, was designed to find out what Brecht was really aiming at in the play. This might have worked well if Gaskill had unlimited time to explore these things, but they clashed completely with the fact that the play was scheduled to open on a particular date. As the rehearsal period progressed there was an increasing amount of unease in the theatre, and in the end Peter Hall took over the production on the final days before the opening night. It’s in this section that Gill’s diary comes into its own, describing Gaskill’s various strategies and the actors responses to them in detail. Added to comments from his memories of the period – an unhappy one for him – it makes for a fascinating and rare opportunity to witness the progress of a production stage by stage.

None of this should suggest that the book is in any way an attack on Gaskill, who was one of Gill’s greatest friends. He may see his faults (‘There is always confusion and nervous changeability with Gaskill’) but he admires him tremendously none the less. If there’s any fault to be found – aside from Gaskill’s inability to get the timing of the rehearsal period right – it’s with the RSC, which he sees as rigid and sanctimonious.

All this sounds rather serious, which of course it is, but Gill is never boring even in the most reflective and philosophical passages, of which there are many: among other things, he discusses Brecht’s work and thinking, and analyses early twentieth-century theatre’s conflict between Expressionism and Realism. However, in addition to the philosophy and analysis there are amusing stories of Gill’s own life, including a near-death experience of falling down a waterfall in Ireland and coming round in hospital to find himself being given the last rites by a young priest, an event to be closely followed by tea in a grand Dublin hotel with the venerable actress Marie Lohr. All in all this is a really interesting, informative, thought provoking and enjoyable book which should be required reading for anyone interested in the history of British theatre.

Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books

Peter Gill, Apprenticeship (Oberon Books, 2018). 978-1786824066, 128pp., paperback original.

BUY at the Book Depository (affiliate link).

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