A Natural Citizen
The first season by new Citizens Theatre director Dominic Hill seeks to re-establish its reputation for great classical productions. By Mark Brown
There is something familiar about meeting Dominic Hill (pictured), the new artistic director of Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre, in his office at the Gorbals playhouse. It’s not only that I have interviewed him on a number of occasions in the past, in his capacities as director of Dundee Rep and, subsequently, the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh. Hill may only now be on the brink of launching his first season at the Citz (beginning with Harold Pinter’s excellent, semi-autobiographical play Betrayal on March 2), but already it feels as if he belongs here.
Hill is, after all, first and foremost a classical director. Wherever he keeps his awards – be it a shelf or a toilet – must be crammed with gongs he’s received for his productions of such great classical plays as Howard Barker’s Scenes From An Execution, Ibsen’s Peer Gynt and Edward Albee’s The Goat, Or Who Is Sylvia? Although he presented some fine work, most notably the Albee, at the Traverse (Scotland’s new writing theatre), I can’t help but think he must feel more at home at the Citz. The Glasgow playhouse is a great repertory theatre with a fabulous history, most notably the reign of Giles Havergal, from 1969 to 2003. Here he can stage the kind of classical work that is his forte, with all the imagination and vigour which has brought him such acclaim.
“It feels like a good fit,” Hill agrees. “It feels like there’s a freedom to do a variety of work here. If there’s a play we want to put on, we’ll just do it in an empty space, and spend the money on the actors and the costumes. There’s a natural theatricality to the space that allows you to use it in a number of different ways.”
He’s pleased, too, that the theatre has such an established reputation for radical, sometimes controversial interpretations of classical plays. “You can’t ignore the heritage of this place,” he asserts. “I’m in the enviable position of coming in a while after Giles [Havergal] and co were here. It feels like we can celebrate that and say those were the glory days and, although what we’re doing isn’t going to be the same, these kind of plays have worked in that space [the Citz main auditorium] in the past.”
I suggest to Hill that part of the Citz’s special character comes from the fact that, sitting in the heart of the Gorbals, it has a cross-class audience, combining working-class and middle-class theatregoers, both of whom want to experience challenging and intelligent classical plays. “That’s undeniably true,” he says. “That’s the success of this building, isn’t it? It’s that tension between the beautiful, proscenium arch, gold-leaf auditorium and both the work that was on the stage [in the Havergal era] and where it sits. It’s surrounded by hideous buildings, a building site and piles of rubble, and yet we’re putting on Pinter, Beckett and Shakespeare. That’s exciting.”
There’s no doubting the appeal of the play with which Hill is making his Citz debut. Betrayal is one of the most admired dramas by Nobel laureate Harold Pinter. First staged at the National Theatre in London in 1978, it is, by the late dramatist’s admission, strongly informed by his famous, seven-year affair with the journalist Joan Bakewell and, thereby, his betrayal of his then wife, actress Vivien Merchant.
“I just love the play. I think it’s a work of genius,” says Hill. “It’s so exquisitely crafted and incredibly moving. There’s something about this play, because it doesn’t have that deliberate sense of mystery or enigma that removes the audience from it, which is incredibly direct and raw. This play is different from those he wrote before. It’s really sparse. I think it marks a shift in his work. The text is so rich, and the drama is in the lines, pauses and the silences. I think it’s a wonderful and beautiful play.”
He returns, again, to the inherent theatricality and flexibility of the Citz’s main auditorium. Although the theatre has two small studio performance spaces, and some directors might be tempted to play a nominally “small” play like Betrayal in one of those, he insists: “It’s nice to be doing it on the main stage. It’s not a studio play, it’s a big play.”
Following Betrayal in March, Hill’s packed spring programme will see him stage Shakespeare’s King Lear (with acclaimed Scottish actor David Hayman in the title role) in April, and a Beckett double bill, of Krapp’s Last Tape and Footfalls, in May. The casting of the shows reflects the director’s sense of his theatre’s heritage.
“Getting David to play Lear is about saying there were an awful lot of fantastic actors who came through this building, who can, and should, come through this building again.” The same goes for Gerard Murphy, who plays Krapp. “It makes me laugh that he played Macbeth here to David Hayman’s Lady Macbeth [in 1979].”
As ever with Hill, however, the play’s the thing. “We’ve got four great texts. It’s the kind of work that feels very unique to us. I don’t think the Lyceum [in Edinburgh] would put on these three shows in a row. I think we’re doing something that no-one else in Scotland is doing, something that needs doing.”
Betrayal opens at the Citizens Theatre on March 2. For full details of the spring season, visit: www.citz.co.uk
This feature was originally published in the Sunday Herald on February 5, 2012
© Mark Brown