"Did a woman ever live who wasn't slowly killing herself?" ponders one of the men in Peter Gill's Small Change, one of five plays by the author (four of which I was able to see) presented in a festival at the Sheffield Crucible. The answer is, not often in Gill's plays, but the reason is not misogyny. Rather, Gill's interest as a playwright tends towards the kinds of relationship characterised by suppression and suffering; this renders his women either the principal victims – seen with an unflinching yet paradoxically sympathetic eye – or victims of "collateral damage" in dealings between men, or simply irrelevant to and absent from the scene.
The last of these is the case with the main house production of Gill's latest play Original Sin. It takes place in an all-male world, concentrating on both material and emotional power relationships solely between men. What makes this odd is that the piece is in fact a rewrite of Wedekind's "Lulu" plays. The combination of siren allure and pathological reliance on the attentions of others for self-definition is here located in Andrew Scott's Angel, through a stream of affairs with figures familiar to those who have seen any version of the Wedekind: the doctor, the besotted artist, the industrialist, the devoted aristo.
In this case, though, the ends don't really justify the means. The world of the play as a whole, and some of the individual dynamics, are quite interesting; the transposition into an all-male milieu sets Gill a number of problems, most of which he discreetly solves, some of which he just as unobtrusively funks... but there is no sense of fundamental reappraisal, no feeling that this had to be the play that Gill wrote in order to make his intended points. His own direction, although both sensitive and scrupulous, doesn't help matters here by drawing things out at a stately pace.
The older plays in repertoire in the Crucible's studio are more characteristically Gill-ian. Both Small Change (1976) and Kick For Touch (1983) are working-class Cardiff memory plays with oscillating time-lines but continuously played scenes, so that one period crashes into another in a way both disconcerting and exhilarating: in Kick For Touch, for instance, a lovers' tickle-fight suddenly and shockingly becomes a bawling row later in the relationship. Semi-articulated male homo-eroticism, and its emotional complications, are among Gill's main preoccupations. Both of these plays, given fine productions by Rufus Norris and Josie Rourke respectively, show such relationships with brilliant, agonising clarity; Small Change adds a female friendship of solidarity between the two lads' mothers, and also those women's erosion by the brutal, unremitting daily grind. (Gill's reputation was established in the 1960s as director of the "rediscovered" plays of D.H. Lawrence, and the back-to-back terrace environments in some of his own plays are distinctly Lawrentian in tone.)
Mean Tears (1987) is less akin to the two plays just mentioned than (in its way) to Original Sin, although more completely successful: a consideration of the heartlessness of 1980s metropolitan life. No bilious condemnation of conspicuous consumption and City boorishness, though: all five characters have comfortable jobs, but we never really find out what any of them are. Here it is not material greed that is good, but emotional selfishness. This is true in differing ways for each of the five characters, but in particular for the whining, self-deluded bisexual Julian, who cannot even see the extent of his own passive-aggressive manipulations. It takes skill to write (and, on Paul Miller's part, to direct) such complex interactions compellingly whilst maintaining a sense of utter hollowness – not even authorial hostility, but complete lack of affect, the moral void presented as it is.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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