- Michael Coveney
Gaskill, William (1930–2016), theatre director, was born on 24 June 1930 at 3 Highfield Terrace, Shipley, Yorkshire, the fourth child and only son of Joseph Linnaeus Gaskill (1889–1973), schoolmaster, and his wife Maggie, née Simpson (1891–1963). He was educated at Salt High School, Shipley, where his father was a teacher, and later headmaster. With his fellow student, Tony Richardson, whom he would follow to Oxford and to the English Stage Company at the Royal Court, he started a youth theatre company which Richardson’s father offered to finance if he, Gaskill, canvassed for him as a putative Conservative councillor. Young Gaskill reluctantly agreed. He then directed a ballet for a local girls’ school and played the Spirit of Russia in a fur cap, having been inspired by the Sadler’s Wells ballet on tour.
Gaskill and Richardson also attended the classes run by Esmé Church at the Bradford Civic Playhouse (along with a young Billie Whitelaw) before taking the Oxford theatre scene by storm in the late 1940s; Richardson was at Wadham, while Gaskill, two years younger, won a scholarship to Hertford College. Their theatrically inclined contemporaries included the critic Kenneth Tynan, the composer/lyricist Sandy Wilson, the producer Michael Codron, the industrialist Peter Parker, and the politician Shirley Williams. On graduating, and encouraged by his father, he then spent six months studying mime and movement in Paris with Étienne Decroux, who had taught Jean-Louis Barrault and Marcel Marceau.
Returning to Britain, Gaskill worked as a nurse, a baker, and in a factory before entering weekly rep and in 1954 directing his first professional production, The First Mrs Fraser by St John Ervine, in Redcar, a seaside resort in north Yorkshire. He then took a trainee directorship at Granada Television, and rushed from his job on an outside broadcast episode of Zoo Time, presented by Desmond Morris, to attend the momentous first night of Richardson’s production of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger in May 1956, presented by the new English Stage Company (ESC) at the Royal Court.
Richardson was the dynamic lieutenant of the ESC’s founder, George Devine, and Gaskill was soon adopted as a key associate. Later in the same year Bertolt Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble visited the Palace Theatre in London, and this, for Gaskill, was a turning point. ‘I knew’, he said, that ‘I had to rethink everything’ (Gaskill, A Sense of Direction, 14). He was particularly impressed by the quality of the acting and the austere, beautiful designs: ‘Nothing was hidden, nothing secret. It looked wonderful’ (ibid., 13).
There was no one style of production at the ESC, but Gaskill was soon renowned for the seriousness and sensuous lucidity of his work in new plays by N. F. Simpson, John Arden, and Osborne; and Osborne’s Epitaph for George Dillon (co-written with Anthony Creighton) marked Gaskill’s Broadway début in 1958 when it transferred from the Royal Court, with Robert Stephens as a frustrated young playwright. Gaskill was now a fixture at the Court, running playwrights’ workshops and the improvisation and mask-work classes that became his modus operandi.
But after a short stint with Peter Hall’s newly formed Royal Shakespeare Company—he directed Christopher Plummer and Edith Evans in Richard III, and Vanessa Redgrave and Eric Porter in Cymbeline—and a 1963 West End production of Brecht’s bohemian fable Baal starring Peter O’Toole, Gaskill was invited to join Laurence Olivier’s even newer National Theatre company at Chichester and the Old Vic. He was an associate there from 1963 to 1965, part of a caucus of Royal Court shooting stars—others were the director John Dexter and actors Joan Plowright, Stephens, Frank Finlay, and Colin Blakely—whom Olivier cannily recruited to add zest and irreverence to an enterprise that Hall had audaciously gazumped in Stratford-upon-Avon. Gaskill was reluctant to be prised away from Sloane Square and the new work project launched by George Devine and Richardson, but what Olivier dubbed ‘the wooing of Billy Gaskill’ (Spoto, 277) yielded some notable productions. His revival of George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer in 1963 with Olivier, Maggie Smith, Stephens, Max Adrian, Derek Jacobi, and Lynn Redgrave set a new standard in Restoration comedy, decluttering the stage of fans and furbelows on a delightful set of red-brick Queen Anne buildings by René Allio and evoking, said one critic (Bamber Gascoigne in The Observer, 15 Dec 1963), ‘an air of sharpened reality, like life on a winter’s day with frost and sun’.
Gaskill’s other National Theatre work in this exciting period included John Marston’s The Dutch Courtesan, Brecht’s Mother Courage, with Madge Ryan in the lead, and Albert Finney in John Arden’s Armstrong’s Last Goodnight. But then Devine died suddenly in 1965 and, with Richardson having diversified into film and fame, Gaskill was his obvious successor and felt duty bound to return. Olivier was philosophical: ‘The good Lord giveth and the good Lord taketh away’ (Wardle, 266).
Back at the Court, Gaskill worked with designers Jocelyn Herbert, Deirdre Clancy, and John Napier, and lighting designer Andy Phillips (the lighting rig was usually visible above the stage). His period as artistic director from 1965 to 1972 (the last three years in a formidable triumvirate with Anthony Page and Lindsay Anderson) was one of defiance, achievement, and innovation. He was the catalyst, and bridge, between the initial energy of the ESC and the new wave of playwrights led by Edward Bond and the fringe generation.
There were fights with the critics—over a 1966 sell-out production of Macbeth starring Alec Guinness and Simone Signoret played in full light in a white box—and the lord chamberlain. The overdue demise of this censorious licensing office in 1968 (it had been created in 1737) was hastened by Gaskill’s aggressive policy and uncompromising stance on a Bond play, Early Morning, which implicated Queen Victoria and Florence Nightingale in a lesbian relationship. He promptly opened a fiercely experimental studio in the attic formerly occupied by a Clement Freud restaurant and threw open the doors, in 1970, to a landmark fringe festival, ‘Come Together’, which spilled out all over the building and into Sloane Square.
At the same time Gaskill cultivated important partnerships between playwrights and directors, initiated a young people’s theatre scheme, and made sure that new plays on the main stage had great actors in them: Paul Scofield in Osborne and Christopher Hampton, John Gielgud in Bond (as Shakespeare) and David Storey, Glenda Jackson in Bond’s version of Chekhov. A trilogy of Bond plays and Peter Gill’s rediscovery of D. H. Lawrence as a playwright carried the Court banner right across Europe.
Gaskill said that it was only by working with living writers that he understood how to approach a classical text, and only by working with classically trained actors that he understood the importance of speaking and phrasing in any play, new or old. When asked about his ‘policy’, he always averred that policy was the people you worked with. A deeply moral aesthete who was as formidable as he was forbidding, he was not only a great director but also a great teacher.
Gaskill entered a new phase of creativity in 1973 when he left the Court to form the touring ensemble Joint Stock with the director Max Stafford-Clark, the producer David Aukin, and the playwright David Hare. The work was spare, democratically evolved, and geared to the new writing of Hare, Howard Brenton, Caryl Churchill, Barrie Keeffe, and Stephen Lowe; this was, in effect (together with Richard Eyre’s parallel regime at the Nottingham Playhouse), the Royal Court in exile.
But Gaskill never lost the regard and co-operation of the greatest actors. He returned to the National in 1977 to direct Scofield in a revival, both sumptuous and austere, of Harley Granville-Barker’s The Madras House and—having directed Maggie Smith in a second Farquhar classic, The Beaux’ Stratagem, at the National in 1969—provided a third definitive Restoration revival with Congreve’s The Way of the World at Chichester and the Haymarket in London in 1983, with Smith as Mrs Sullen and Plowright as Lady Wishfort, ‘an old peel’d wall’. His last works at the National were two rare Pirandello plays, Man, Beast and Virtue in 1989, and the unfinished Mountain Giants in 1993, both fascinating, and both translated by Charles Wood, another Royal Court colleague. His life gradually became one of teaching drama students and painting large, powerful canvases in his basement flat in Kentish Town, north London. He remained devoted to dance throughout his life, and especially to the work of the American choreographer Merce Cunningham. His two books, full of wisdom and clear thinking, were essential reading for anyone interested in the rapid, and seismic, developments in the theatre during the twentieth century.
Gaskill, generally known as ‘Bill’, loathed, to the end, what became known as ‘directors’ theatre’, believing that every play has an identity that it is the director’s job to reveal. His private life, as for so many in theatre, was woven into his work, and was not always happy. An intense relationship with the talented director, Desmond O’Donovan (1933–2010), ended badly after O’Donovan had been appointed by Gaskill as his associate at the Court in 1965 and the former’s bipolar disorder, aggravated by drugs, erupted into public display. Gaskill died of lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease at the Marie Curie Hospice in Camden, London, on 4 February 2016.
- I. Wardle, The theatres of George Devine (1978)
- W. Gaskill, A sense of direction (1988)
- D. Spoto, Laurence Olivier: a biography (1991)
- W. Gaskill, Words into action (2010)
- The Guardian (5 Feb 2016)
- The Stage (5 Feb 2016)
- Daily Telegraph (10 Feb 2016)
- The Times (5 May 2016)
- WW (2016)
- personal knowledge (2020)
- D. Hockney, pencil drawing, 1972, NPG
- R. Mayne, bromide print, 1960, NPG
- R. Mayne, photographs, 1960, Roger Mayne Archive/Mary Evans Picture Library, London
- R. Mayne, photograph, group portrait, 1958, Roger Mayne Archive/Mary Evans Picture Library, London
- R. Mayne, photograph, 1965, Roger Mayne Archive/Mary Evans Picture Library, London
- obituary photographs