top of page

How I started and stopped being a theatre director: Part 1

by Vincent Guy

1963. There I am, 19 years old, convinced, on the strength of one school Shakespeare, that I would be welcomed as god’s gift to university acting. A year into a philosophy degree at Oxford, I’m bored with the course and the only tribute to my immense talent has been a couple of spears to carry. Should I just leave, give up ? Out of the blue, Pinter’s play “The Birthday Party” comes to my rescue. The young man assigned to direct has been disallowed by his tutor – he’s done even less study than was usual for Oxford undergrads. The play’s already cast, but a new director is required. My egghead friend Mark suggests a “concept” for the production – something to do with the unconscious mind. Our concept goes down well with the interviewing panel, or at least gives me a peg on which to waffle persuasively, so I get the job. The first night gets huge acclaim. Michael Palin puts in a brooding performance as one of the sinister intruders, showing a dark side hidden from view in his later career as Monty Python clown and TV globe-trotter. The production had a flaw at its heart: the actor playing Goldberg, the other intruder, sinister enough during rehearsal, couldn’t stop giggling during performances. There was nothing I could do about it, but few seemed to notice. Overnight, people spoke of me as a professional theatre director in the making. I did another show, not bad in fact, and suddenly I was Oxford’s top director.

Next, a summer 1964 vacation production of Midsummer Night’s Dream followed, not in Oxford but in the grounds of a Stratford hotel. It was four hundred years since Shakespeare’s birth. My production was fairly run-of-the-mill, though marked by a cast of whom many went on to distinguish themselves in the media, as journalists, scriptwriters, novelists and even actors. It enabled me to dine out on the line, “Yes daahling, I directed The Dream at Stratford for the Bard’s quatercentenary.”

Oh, and I must mention how I made it to London’s West End. The university’s Experimental Theatre Club was preparing a show in the style of “Oh what a Lovely War” on the theme of capital punishment. I auditioned for a role and was promptly rejected. My girlfriend Adele (now the novelist Adele Geras) got taken, mainly on the strength of her powerful singing voice. The show was a hit and went into London to the Comedy Theatre. (Strange that a bunch of 20-year-old amateurs get to play in one of the world’s most prestigious theatre districts, but the cachet of Oxford sweeps all before it. ) Extra stagehands were needed; I volunteered to join them. So there I was hauling on ropes in the flies as my inamorata enjoyed her triumph thirty feet below. This was to be my first and only appearance, or non-appearance, in London’s West End.

Autumn term, and I was selected to direct the big production. I chose “The Devils” by John Whiting, full of witches and wickedness. The first difficulty: performing rights were unavailable, so already I had to make do with my second choice: Miller’s “The Crucible” – at least it had some witches in it. I ran auditions at the end of summer and selected a superlative cast, all of Oxford’s top talent. By the time the curtain went up on the first night every member of that cast had been replaced, some more than once: tutors’ prohibitions, sickness, better offers and perhaps some who just didn’t want to work with me. Diana Quick came on as one of the substitutes, so the 2nd XI was by no means second-rate. Nonetheless, when “The Crucible” arrived on stage, the production had been drained of its lifeblood, a competent but lacklustre event whose strong point was the set designed by my school friend Peter Beard. Reviews were on the lines of “Oxford’s top director messes it up”. Inside eighteen months I had lived the whole of a meteoric career: exaggerated praise at my appearance, vituperative delight at my fall.

Final exams taken, the outer world beckoned. The BBC were willing to interview me for a fast-track career, but threw me out after ten minutes. So much for fast track. Instead I landed a job as Public Relations Officer for the Royal Court Theatre – in retrospect quite extraordinary to give this to a 21-year-old with no PR experience. The idea in my mind, and to a degree echoed by Bill Gaskill, the Artistic Director, was that I would benefit from hanging out in this creative hothouse, meet people useful to my future career and find a suitable script among the hundreds incoming which I could direct as a ‘Sunday Night’ and thence proceed to glory. Well, I did rub shoulders with a few droppable names: a phone chat with Jonathan Miller (who seemed to think I could help him get a directing job at the Court), standing in a queue behind Laurence Olivier, asking Ian McKellen to “come on stage for a photo please”, a word with Arnold Wesker who hated anything to do with publicity (which I suppose included me). There did come a moment in hero-worshipper’s heaven when I was detailed to keep a visiting Rod Steiger happy in the pub next door to the theatre. This proved an uphill task: Steiger was as miserable as hell, which seemed odd to me as he was waiting to meet the most beautiful woman in the world, whom I had been in love with since the age of eight: his wife, Claire Bloom. A couple of years later they got divorced, which might have had something to do with his misery.

The most colourful incident was when the Royal Court organised a discussion to support Edward Bond’s “Saved”, a skilfully written but inherently nasty piece about working-class life, not so much ‘kitchen sink’ more ‘sink estate’. One of the panellists was Ken Tynan, the flamboyant theatre critic. At some point in the evening I opened the stage door to find we were being doorstepped. Hundreds of reporters and cameramen were clamouring for access to Tynan. Nothing to do with the play, but because an hour ago Ken had for the first time on live television used the word “fuck”. Quite unprepared, I blabbed something like “Well, yes, he’s inside but I don’t expect he wants to speak to you”. For this I later got stick from management who judged it very naïve. Later, this same management gave me the sack, saying I was too “efficient” for the theatre, and should perhaps try TV. In fact I had fallen into a kind of clerical routine, churning out the press releases, preparing the programmes. I never directed a ‘Sunday Night’; I never even looked at one of those promising scripts.

Inwardly, I was overwhelmed by the whirl of the great city in the midst of its Swinging Sixties. At first I lived in a bedsit the size of a shoebox. Then I upgraded my quarters by moving in with a girl who personified the era, the fashion designer for Young Jaeger. She was, I suppose, a successful artist; for me she had a sharp tongue and not a little contempt: “You’re just a 30–pound-a-week professional.” Eventually I moved out of this category to become unemployed. While signing on at the Labour Exchange, I managed to hook an unpaid directing job at a lunchtime theatre club: the play was a one-acter by a biggish name in American writing, William Saroyan. Rehearsals had begun when Saroyan himself got in touch. This sounded promising: some mentoring from the great man, perhaps. What he actually wanted was for his daughter to replace the current actress, let’s call her Mary, in the leading role; otherwise he would withdraw the rights. Abjectly I agreed, saying to myself, “It’s a tough business; I too must be tough.” Wrong kind of toughness. I promptly sacked Mary and started rehearsals afresh with Miss Saroyan. Then came news that Mary was taking action against us through Equity, the actors’ union, effectively blocking the production. Some relief remained in that I was able to go ahead with a different play and some of the same cast. What happened to Miss Saroyan I don’t know, but I felt soiled, both by Saroyan’s corrupt manipulations and my own lack of principle.

At about the same time came another surge in the tide which might have led on to fortune. A call from Oxford Theatre Group: would I be able to take on the direction of a new play heading for the Edinburgh Fringe, the director having fallen sick?

Well, of course. What’s the play?”

It’s by an unknown writer called Tom Stoppard; we’ll post the script to you.”

I don’t recall if I received the package or perused the script of “Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” before the second phone call saying:

We don’t need you after all, the director has recovered.”

Soon after that, I won a scholarship to go and practise directing in provincial theatre. It looked as though my career had really begun.



bottom of page