What makes Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre so important, and why is David Hayman returning there to play King Lear? By Mark Brown
The Citizens Theatre, Glasgow (or the Citz, as it is affectionately known) is widely considered to be one of the greatest repertory theatre companies, not only in Scotland, but throughout the UK. This is down, almost entirely, to the directorship of Giles Havergal (and his co-directors Philip Prowse and Robert David McDonald) between 1969 and 2003. Under ‘the triumvirate’, the theatre – which sits in the working-class district of the Gorbals, on the south bank of the River Clyde – earned itself a genuinely international reputation.
It was a reputation built from a heady mix of imaginative brilliance, audacity and controversy. In her book Magic in the Gorbals, the Citz’s biographer, Cordelia Oliver, remembers how an early Havergal production from 1970 – a radical revisioning of Hamlet, starring a young David Hayman, playing the Dane as an “unprincely… half-naked youth, trapped and howling his frustration” – caused outrage in certain quarters.
The production was denounced for the liberties it had taken with the text and for its sexual frankness. Schools cancelled their block bookings in protest. A less progressive or more timid board of directors would have sacked the revolutionary young Havergal there and then.
It was greatly to theatre’s benefit that the board stood by their man. Havergal and his co-directors went on to establish a ‘Citizens Style’ so brilliant and so distinctive that it remains a high water mark in British theatre.
Havergal’s Citz attracted many famous actors to its stage. Rupert Everett remembers the theatre as, “consistently inventive, controversial and inspiring.” Gary Oldman says, “my time at the Citizens in the early 80s was a coming of age. The work was joyful, bold and exhilarating. In the years that followed, no other theatre experience could match it.”
Such opinions are repeated over and over, by all manner of theatre practitioners. Tim Webb, artistic director of multiple award-winning children’s theatre company Oily Cart, worked at Citz, as an assistant stage manager, in the 1970s. He has fond memories of Havergal’s unconventional approach to theatre making. “I went into the Citz one Saturday morning”, he recalls. “They were rehearsing Twelfth Night. Giles was on the stage, in his big Cuban heels, standing on the rake; so he was leaning forward at 45 degrees. He was in a straightjacket, and he was looking up at the circle and shouting ‘coo! coo!’ They were trying to get a white dove to fly down and land on him.”
Such memories are very strong in the mind of David Hayman, who is now, after a three decade hiatus, making his return to the Citz, in the title role of King Lear. When I meet him at the Gorbals playhouse, his delight at being back in the theatre he calls his “creative home” is absolutely palpable.
The reason for his return is the recent appointment of acclaimed director Dominic Hill (previously artistic director of the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh and Dundee Rep). Hill has garnered many plaudits for such productions as Scenes from an Execution by Howard Barker, Ibsen’s Peer Gynt and The Three Musketeers and the Princess of Spain by Chris Hannan (after Dumas). Hopes are high that the director will return the Citz to its previously strong position in British and international theatre.
Hayman certainly shares those hopes. “I hope that reputation comes back, I really do”, he says. “In the heyday of that company, during the first 10 years [the 1970s] , we would play here for 10 months of the year, then we’d go off for six weeks, touring the capitals of Europe.
“We were up against the likes of La Scala of Milan, Peter Stein’s Schaubühne in Berlin, and the great American touring companies of those days. It was magnificent to be up there with those exalted theatre makers. We were coming from this wee place in the Gorbals! It was fantastically exciting. I hope we can rekindle that international reputation.”
Hayman wouldn’t be back, treading the boards of the theatre where he made his name, unless he felt it had appointed the right director. “I would never have come under Jeremy Raison’s reign”, he explains, referring to Hill’s predecessor, who was artistic director between 2003 and 2010. “There was no excitement here, and the dynamic of the place had gone. So, I’d never have come back then.”
Hayman’s feelings towards Hill are quite different. “He has a great reputation, and actors love him.” I suggest that Hill is best understood as a classical director. “He is”, the actor agrees, “and that’s why he’s right for this place. It’s a marriage made in heaven, actually.”
Some might say that the coming together of Hill and Hayman in the forthcoming production of King Lear is equally exciting. “I’ve been excited about it ever since Dominic asked me to do it”, he says. “I’m thoroughly enjoying working with him. He’s a really bright man, he understands the text.
“It’s a complex play, a real masterpiece, like a great opera or a great musical symphony. So, you want the person with their hand at the tiller to really have a firm grasp of the play, and he has that.”
As to Shakespeare’s drama itself, it sits very well with Hayman’s own humanism and egalitarianism. “Lear finds his humanity. He’s a king who becomes a man. He’s stripped of his power. They’ve taken away his knights and his castles, and, suddenly, the poor bastard’s out on the blasted heath. Then he’s like, ‘is this how everyone else lives? What about you poor, naked wretches? My God, I’ve done nothing about you! How could I have been a good ruler?’”
And, after a few more words about the “smashing company of actors” Hill has assembled, Hayman is back, with an enthusiastic spring in his step, to rehearsals in the very theatre where his half-naked Hamlet caused such a stir 42 years ago.
King Lear is at the Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, April 20 to May 12. www.citz.co.uk
An abridged and edited version of this feature was originally published in the Big Issue on April 23, 2012
© Mark Brown