The deaths this year of Bill Gaskill and now Howard Davies have made me think about the theatre they came to stand for. With its roots in the Royal Court of the 1960s and, before that, the Berliner Ensemble of the 1950s, theirs was sometimes seen as a uniquely English kind of ‘poetic realism’. There are very few of that generation still working and it’s a tradition that is fading fast.
There were, of course, individual differences but some things were fundamental: careful story telling and a sense of change; a commitment to the spoken word and the cadences of the language; above all, scrupulous representation of class, power and society. Good casting was fundamental and respect for human scale in design was essential. It was a theatre which saw everyone on stage as equally interesting, and attended to the realities of privilege and labour, authority and exclusion, culture and background, with wit and affection, but also real seriousness.
Inevitably, it didn’t engage with some of the questions that face us today—above all, race, gender and disability—but it was interested in economic and social injustice, and brought that political commitment to productions of the classics as much as to new work. And so it’s a mistake, I think, to overlook just how progressive the best of this work was, how thoughtful it was, how engaged it was in the possibility of change, and how much it dreamt of a ‘better world than this’.
Brecht was, of course, the biggest influence. Fighting the charge that he was a ‘formalist’, he quipped that the real formalists were those who insisted on only one form; but he also joked that the Nuremberg rallies were ‘impressive theatre,’ and his formal innovations were always tied to his wider concerns. Theatrical fashions change, and new engagements with new kinds of problems—and, especially, new audiences—are inspiring. But we should be careful not to mistake new form for new content, or imagine that stylistic innovations are always accompanied by progressive thinking. History shows us that they don’t necessarily travel in the same direction. Just look at Donald Trump.