You had a lot of film work but you seem happiest in the theatre. Why is that?
One of the most boring things in the world is being asked to play a scene or two in a movie – you’d be picked up in the morning and driven to Pinewood or wherever, and you’d sit there for three days, until on the fourth day they’d get you in make-up and on the set. But the sitting around, and the over-eating, and the boredom of it… There was a lovely man called George Pravda whom I spent a lot of time with in Zurich when we were making a movie there – and we were never called! But George was one of the greatest story-tellers of all time. He literally woke up in the morning, started telling stories, and only stopped when he went to bed. I’ve never known anybody able to remember and tell stories like he could. So we’d see the sights together, and go out for meals, but in the end you think, ‘What am I doing here?’ A lot of people love it because they’re being paid and being fed, so they don’t mind the waiting around so much.
How did you cultivate your career as a theatre director?
I got to do David Turner’s Semi-Detached. He wrote this wonderful stage play that Leonard Rossiter created at Coventry in 1962. It was brilliant. Olivier thought he could do it, but was completely wrong for it, and he dried all the way through when it transferred to London. I directed it and invented a number of things in the action. That was in 1963, and it was my proper start directing, and I gradually got more and more to do. I did a lot at the King’s Head Theatre over six or seven years whilst Dan Crawford ran it. Eventually I ended up directing 17 shows there and helped to put it on the map. People of the quality of Tony Doyle I’d work with. Actors got television in slots in those days so they’d know what they were doing a few weeks in advance. We did The Love Songs Of Martha Canary with Heather Sears, who had been a very innocent-looking and pretty actress in film after film when she was young. By 35 her big screen career was finished. So here was this ex-film star, and she was lovely! I got to know her quite well.
Did you choose your own plays?
I started looking for scripts. Piles would come in and I was happy to read them. Whereas as an actor I was prepared to do more or less anything, I thought as a director it’s no good overlapping exactly, so I specialised in new and neglected scripts, hence I found this extraordinary writer Tom Gallacher. We did a play called Mr Joyce is Leaving Paris he’d written, about James Joyce. It’s a wonderful piece, and had a great performance by Robert Bernal. It took off and had rave reviews. We took it to the Dublin Theatre Festival. Tom had never been produced until then, but I eventually did four of his plays.
Any other highlights?
We did an hour-long play, Oedipus at the Crossroads, also by Jeremy Kingston, the author of Making Dickie Happy. With that one we had Nicky Henson, Raymond Westwell and John Bott in the cast who were all at the RSC in town. We couldn’t do it at night of course, because they were all playing elsewhere, so we did it at lunchtime and it absolutely sold out. We got wonderful reviews! I’ve managed to do it once since but not as well as I would have liked, and I’d like to revive it. It’s a very funny play, very biting.
You also directed Period of Adjustment. Is it true that Tennessee Williams attended a performance?
Tennessee Williams was in town with his minder when I was directing Tony Doyle (who sadly died far too young just as he was rising and becoming a star) in Period of Adjustment. To me Williams has been misrepresented in the theatre because of Elia Kazan who decided all his plays are tragedies. Williams himself thought that all of his plays, including A Streetcar Named Desire, are comedies! Period of Adjustment, the one we did, is the one that everyone says is the only comedy he ever wrote, because it’s comparatively light-hearted and without a brooding or sad end. So Williams came along, and it was a wonderful evening. The play starts with a radio announcement with a typical American station telling you about the weather forecast, the traffic on the road and the latest murder – all that sort of thing. Williams was sitting somewhere near the back of a good house, and suddenly from that broadcast I heard this high-pitched laugh. He was wonderful, he laughed all the way through it, and he led the audience, so instead of them thinking they were going to see a heavy Tennessee Williams play, they realised it was funny! I met him afterwards. He had hair down to his shoulders and was wonderfully spaced out. I directed Streetcar up at Norwich, thanks to a connection at the Dublin Theatre Festival. The woman who played the lead thought it was a tragedy. Everybody else realised it was a comedy! Williams writes almost exclusively about one thing – sexual frustration. He says that he finds it funny! He finds people like Blanche, with her ridiculous pretentions thinking they’re thirty years younger than they actually are and making eyes with the doorman hilarious, not sad. I was in a production of The Rose Tattoo under Peter Hall at the Playhouse Theatre, and he got the humour. What Peter does best is something with bite. He cut it so well, because a lot of Williams is fat, but Julie Walters and Ken Stott played the leads and got the comedy. It was very astute casting. It was played with comedy so the torture and the pain was still there, but it’s tolerable and entertaining for the audience, and still about the human condition, without it being a dreary Kazan take on it. To me that’s much more potent than whinging on.
In the mid-90s you spent a couple of years with the RSC. How did that come about?
That was the strangest surprise of my life! The Old Vic made total sense to me, working in the classics. Even back then I was applying to get into the RSC. I didn’t get to a second audition. The directing began to move on, and then I did less directing because I was doing more television, and so I forgot about the RSC. Then this offer came along to join them. The only stipulation I made was that I wouldn’t understudy. They’re treated much better now, as they rehearse and even have understudy performances for the public, which is a lot better than being thrown on unprepared. I had to understudy Paul Rogers’ Touchstone at the Old Vic and could tell you a terrifying story about that! I played Starveling in Adrian Noble’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream which went to America for almost six months and played on Broadway. The mechanicals all want to play different things, and Bottom wants to play everything, but my part is asked to play a woman. The standard response is to be crestfallen, but instead I was very pleased, and that got a huge laugh. It was at its best at Stratford, and we brought A Midsummer Night’s Dream to the Barbican, but there were a few cast changes by the time we went to America. But it was a great excuse to see a lot of the US. It was wonderful to be there, and the company was a wonderful set of people. It was like being in an actor’s heaven. They were so talented. To be for that length of time with such lovely and supportive people, especially for the first two years in Stratford and London, was absolutely amazing. It was lovely to end up with something like that.
Do you still perform?
I’ve worked with Cardboard Citizens for Adrian Jackson a lot. They work with homeless people and refugees with a yen to learn the skill of acting. The first time was a 1998 production of The Lower Depths, in which I played a murky character who changes lives, though whether it’s for the better or the worse, who knows? They do workshops and hostel tours and it’s in the style of Augusto Boal – a political Brazilian who wrote scripts for villagers. We’d ask the audience who was the professional actor and who was the citizen? It was usually about half and half. They tried it at the Riverside Studios with an ordinary audience. I was amazed how the reserved English responded, with suggestions on what they would have done better. In recent years I did a World War II piece called Mincemeat, also for Cardboard Citizens. Working with them has been incredible. The stories of the homeless you imagine may be pretty conventional, but you could never anticipate their tales, just remarkable. I had a Hungarian mother and Canadian father, and I’m only in this country because of Adolf Hitler. We left France on the last passenger ship in 1940, so if it hadn’t been for him I’d have been French! We were never destitute, but things could have worked out differently.
You’re now reviving Jeremy Kingston’s play Making Dickie Happy. What’s the history there?
We’ve done it twice. We did it at the Rosemary Branch where it was sold out, and we had to put in an extra matinee. The place where it supposedly happened, Burgh Island, we played one performance there. It’s only a shell of the place it was now, but Jeremy and I went down to the smuggler’s cove. It was an interesting experience. In its glory days celebrities of the time stayed there: Noel, Agatha and Dickie all had, though not at the same time. Two of them have been at war, so there’s a bittersweet quality to the play.
It’s running in March at the Tristan Bates Theatre. Why choose that venue?
Will Young and Ben Marks were taking over the Tristan Bates, and the short version is that they said ‘yes’. We’re in the street next to the Mousetrap. So Agatha will be playing next door to where her play is playing, so we’re seeing if we can get some synergy on that.
You seem to have a good working relationship with playwright Jeremy Kingston.
Yes. There’s another play of Jeremy’s I’d like to do again called Oedipus at the Crossroads, and he’s done a version of Sophocles of his own which he was persuaded to do by me, and we’d like to do those as a double bill because they’re only about an hour each. Those are really good dramas. He’s a very astute critic and a sharp-minded individual.
We’re looking forward to seeing Making Dickie Happy. Robert Gillespie, thank you for talking to EF.
Tickets for Robert Gillespie’s latest show, Jeremy Kingston’s Making Dickie Happy, which runs 5th to 30th March, are available from the Tristan Bates Theatre box office: http://www.tristanbatestheatre.co.uk/Making_Dickie_Happy.asp