A timely examination of the peace negotiations of 1919, Peter Gill’s latest production brought his unwavering intellectual vision to UK-wide audiences for the first time in more than a decade.

By Barney Norris (Keble College, 2006)

The playwright and director Peter Gill has occupied a distinctive position in theatre culture since he first came to prominence almost fifty years ago. As a young director at the Royal Court, he began by introducing DH Lawrence’s plays to the theatre. The effect was seismic. 

At a stroke, Gill had connected the work of the Court under George Devine and his Sixties successors, typified by that theatre’s coining of the “angry young man” in John Osborne’s Look Back In Anger, to its deep historical roots. The Lawrence plays linked the new theatre writing movement of the Fifties and Sixties to the atmosphere of the labour movement of the early twentieth century, and the efforts of George Bernard Shaw and Harley Granville-Barker, working in that same building fifty years previously, to put ordinary life on stage. Quite apart from the historical value of the productions, Gill also essayed a masterclass in numinous, humanist social realism. 

What is striking about Gill’s subsequent career is its thematic and philosophical coherence. All the elements of his achievement were contained in his productions of the Lawrence plays, and expanded over the years into a complex kaleidoscope of work. As associate director at the Royal Court, founding artistic director of Riverside Studios, associate director at the National Theatre – where he founded the National Theatre Studio, now the single most important centre for the development of new theatre in the UK – and finally as a freelance director, he has continued to investigate human life with an unwavering, powerful clarity of intellect. 

As well as directing the work of others, Gill has done this in his own plays, largely produced at the Royal Court and the National, almost without exception with Gill directing the first productions. Until this year, however, a new play had not been seen in London for over a decade. 

Original Sin, after Wedekind, was produced in Sheffield; Another Door Closed in Bath; A Provincial Life, after Chekhov, in Cardiff; but these plays had been ultimately inaccessible to the large majority of UK theatre audiences. The production at the Donmar Warehouse of his latest play Versailles in spring 2014, therefore, should be treated as a major theatrical event.

Versailles is a story of 1919, of the idealism and compromise surrounding the peace negotiations, of the rise of the middle class who went on to manage the modern world, and the birth of every problem that would subsequently beset the next hundred years. It is a clear-sighted assessment of the awful and banal sorrow of war, and a striking portrait of England – absorbing and assimilating every shock, challenge and tragedy into its endless afternoon of drawing-room conversation, impervious and impregnable as it sails on through time. 

At the play’s heart, Gill challenges that unrufflable identity – surely, he says, after all this, after all that’s happened, we can’t go on taking part? It is a sobering and enormous question to be asked in the theatre, that forces its audience to confront the fact, writ large in the history of everything that has followed the treaty of Versailles, that we let down badly the victims of the First World War by learning so few lessons from their tragedy. 

It is invaluable to be reminded by this major play, a hundred years on from the outbreak of the war, that this is history which should still question and challenge us today.

Barney Norris’s book To Bodies Gone: The Theatre of Peter Gill, is available from Seren. Images by Johan Persson courtesy of the Donmar Warehouse.