top of page

How I started and stopped being a theatre director: Part 2

by Vincent Guy

A downward spiral in Glasgow Photo: Vincent Guy

[On May 18 Vincent told us about his early attempts to become a successful theatre director in the UK -

After a few years in the provinces, I was again struggling round London’s theatrical foothills, doing some work in the drama schools, topping up my earnings with labour on building-sites. In 1969 comes the biggest story of this second London period, both triumph and defeat with the Mercury Theatre and Jean-Pierre Voos. He invites me to direct a rather slight curtain-raiser, with a B-movie noir flavour. I cast one of my drama-school protégées as the love interest and do nifty things with freeze-frame lighting at the moment of the murder. More than a good job, my production even gets praise in the national press. Another show at the Mercury, then work starts on a third, friendship and trust are developing with Jean-Pierre. Suddenly he’s incommunicado: a breakdown, psychiatric treatment, all bets off. The script of show No. 3 is in my hands, a piece about Marilyn Monroe by a New York writer. On a transatlantic phone call the author gives me the go-ahead; I find another venue and start rehearsing. In the main role I cast my girlfriend Patti Love, who begins developing a formidable performance. Opposite her is Jonathan Kramer, fresh from the cast of “Hair”. We are on the way to a win-all British premiere. Then comes a knock at the door of my Soho flat, more knocking, battering, an all-out attack. It’s Jean-Pierre, back from the land of lost balance, intent on retrieving his script. Backing him are two American light-show designers, not the most convincing of heavies, nonetheless a sign of seriousness. I ring for reinforcements: a bunch of my well-built building-site colleagues jump into their Jeeps – or perhaps they take the bus. By the time they arrive, J-P has gone, play in hand. The pandemonium had been too much for Patti; I’d yielded to her screams, rather than to the mini-mob at the door, and handed back the script. Some while later I discover that it wouldn’t have been a premiere after all. The piece had been a “Sunday Night” performance at the Royal Court. Perhaps if I’d done my script research there, I might have directed it years before and this history would be different.

The confrontation with J-P and collapse of the Monroe premiere left me feeling more washed up than ever. Nonetheless, I kept in touch with the cast members and one day the versatile Jonathan said:

Hey, Vincent, the guy I’m staying with, Ned, he’d like to meet you”.

Now this was Ned Sherrin, a power behind the curtains of the whole 60s media scene. Turned out Ned was talent-scouting on behalf of Giles Havergal, newly appointed artistic director at the Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow. Giles needed a director to share the season with him while he got on with the boring things like budgets and meetings with governors. It was, in a cliché, the chance of a lifetime. Ned would pass me on for an interview with Giles, if he liked the cut of my jib. He did, and so did Giles - I was signed up for the season. As far as I recall, neither conversation had much to do with whether I was good at directing plays, and it turned out that I wasn’t – at least not in the particular context of Giles’ new regime.

Giles had wrought great things running the Watford theatre, just outside London. His strategy had been to top each bill with a star of stage or screen to attract the audience. Now, like the cat who’d got the cream, he’d managed to obtain– well, let’s call him Mark – a handsome fellow who’d starred in several successful films. He was contracted to play the lead in four plays with me directing them all. Wow, opportunity rocks! The first problem became evident at the first rehearsal: Mark couldn’t act, at least not on stage. His chiselled features, wavy blond hair and tall slim figure looked great on camera, but on stage where the living actor must hold the attention, make fluid gestures, speak in expressive tones, Mark was as much use as a block of wood. The second problem was that Mark had just got religion. As a result, he spent all his efforts distributing religious tracts to the other actors, suggesting they should allow Jesus into their lives. They were mostly well used to eccentric behaviour of all kinds; the difficulty was that Mark’s mind was simply not on the job in hand. My attempts to unbend his woodenness fell, as Mark’s own gospel put it, on stony ground. The effect was clear on the first night: a lifeless show contrasting (as had “The Crucible” years before) with a brilliant set by a talented young designer. The third problem also showed up: seemed Glasgow hadn’t heard of this star from south of the border; anyway, his name didn’t bring in the crowds, bookings were thin. Next item was an adaptation of Victorian fiction: a great Scottish author’s weakest book. The cast list was just four men, so Mark’s shortcomings were yet more starkly exposed. It played to near-empty houses.

I was due to direct two more plays: a conventional backstage drama by Anouilh and then, the cherry on my cake, a rarely performed piece by Jean Genet. Giles could of course see the lack of pizazz in Mark’s performances, and I had kept him posted about the difficulties I was having. He tells me to keep calm and carry on. Quite late into the Anouilh rehearsals, Giles takes over for a day; he tries numerous tricks to get Mark to unwind – to no avail. Next day Mark is fired. The jeune ingénue’s boyfriend in London is told to jump onto a Glasgow train, buy a copy of the script and learn it on the way North. Giles calls me to his office and fires me too - well, releases me rather gently. Genet is scrapped; instead, Giles himself will direct “The Importance of Being Earnest”, reckoned a sure-fire audience winner. I can leave after the Anouilh first night, or stay on the payroll till my contract ends, doing little or nothing. At the end of my tether, I opt to stay.

Anouilh duly opened with an excellent cast headed by the fleet-footed, fast-learning boyfriend. The dialogue sparkled, the movement flowed. In a reversal of previous disasters, this show was sunk by the set. The trouble, which I had failed to see in advance, was a brooding design in dark green, more suitable for Ibsen or Strindberg than for this glass of thespian champagne.

Now just filling in time, I direct an American two-hander in the studio theatre with David Hayman, today a stalwart among Scottish actors, then a kid just out of drama school. Giles throws me another crumb: voice-coaching a group of ballerinas in a more than odd piece: a ballet on a translated poem by Mallarmé, among famous French poets the most obscure. The choreographer wants the dancers to speak the lines, hence the need for coaching. Here and there in rehearsals I am even asked my opinion about a move. “Swan Lake” it wasn’t, but it was my theatrical swan song.

Much later, I did the sums. Theatre success depends on 4 factors: talent, ambition, hard work and luck. In my case, not enough of the first three to make up for a strikingly low score on the fourth. In the five years I had been in the profession there were scarcely five weeks in which I was doing something worthwhile, enjoying it and pocketing a living wage. At a guess there might be a couple of hundred people working their way as theatre directors in Britain: in the same ballpark as full professors at Oxford or footballers in Premier League. To be one of them takes more than I could offer.

But the decision to stop directing was one I never actually made: I simply found I was not making pestering calls to theatre bosses and they weren’t calling me. Returning to London from Glasgow I felt battered and sucked dry; after a month or so my money ran out. By strange irony, my talented lover Patti was taken up for the new season at Glasgow where she went on to win a national award for her St Joan.

The contents of our Soho flat were all packed up; that weekend I was ready to move out to a friend’s. A fée young artist called Suzanka invited me to the Isle of Wight Rock Festival. With nothing else on my agenda, I went. The exotic Suzanka I soon lost in the crowd, taking up instead with a crowd of Brazilian revellers who happened to be chart-topping singers back in Bahia; with them a Portuguese artist, João Calvario, who instantly became a close friend. As a revelation it came to me, pace Shakespeare, that the world is more than a stage, and there was more to me than directing theatre. The illusion I had harboured, indeed nurtured, that I was exceptionally talented and destined to run the National Theatre before I reached thirty, simply fell away to the dying fall of Jimi Hendrix’ guitar – he died a few days later.

Suddenly, I was free, not to create but to experience: friends, lovers, languages, countries, religions. My cup, drained by my theatrical strivings, now refilled to overflowing. I spent two years mostly on the road, polished my French, learned some Persian, immersed myself in Yoga and Jung, saw the castles of the Cathars and the Assassins, the Alhambra and the mosques of Isfahan, made love to beautiful women. One of them was Tina, cartoonist, singer, builder, actress, linguist, dancer, such a multi-talented artistic soul she could never decide which talent to pursue – Reader, I married her.

Directing is a funny game. Sometimes just an executive function: select your cast (though not always your choice), start rehearsals on time, chat to the technicians so they know what’s going on, discuss characters and lines with the actors in a counselling sort of way, give off an air of decisiveness. It might seem the director is surplus to requirements, yet there always is one. Great orchestras can play quite competently without a conductor though they only do so as a kind of virtuoso trick. Small chamber groups manage without a conductor, but there is no equivalent to this in theatre; even one-man shows usually have a director. I was certainly competent: “efficient” in the way that was disparaged in some quarters. My casts were always happy that my tech rehearsals were in the bag by midnight. In fact the real art of directing is a matter of having a vision, an insight into the meaning of the whole and how to transmit it. That vision may come before rehearsals or it may emerge through exploration with the team. This is something like the cinema idea of the director as auteur, the true creator. Some directors may work in that zone all the time: Peter Brook, Peter Stein, perhaps Reinhardt or Meyerkhold. I think I touched the zone three or four times.


Related Posts

See All


bottom of page