FringeReview UK 2018
The York Realist
Festival: FringeReview UK
Directed by Robert Hastie, this Donmar revival of Peter Gill’s 2002 play cottage is anchored in Peter McKintosh’s single-set with an old range planted centre and a detailed kitchen stage right. Paul Pyant’s lighting suggests an unusually bright Yorkshire day. It’s when the shadows fall that Richard Taylor’s cello and piano score emerges. Emma Laxton’s sound too respects this small space. Till March 24th. Then at Crucible, Sheffield from March 27th to April 7th.
The York Realist doesn’t just pun sadly on the chief protagonist and his relation with his own culture – acting in the medieval York Realist’s Mystery plays as directed by Londoners. It signals the way Cardiff-born Peter Gill became a realist too in this 2002 play, now superbly revived by Robert Hastie at the Donmar. In doing so he reaffirms it a modern classic.
The Donmar’s proved an ideal home for Gill’s work – as playwright and director – over nearly fifteen years. True, the Print Room could advance claims in its stripped-back intimacy for Gill’s earlier, more fluid work, mounting his similar As Good a Time as Any in 2015. But the Donmar premiere of Gill’s magnificent Versailles of 2014 confirms a different Gill: more comfortable with naturalism, something only seen previously in The York Realist and as director.
Peter McKintosh’s single-set cottage anchors this revival with an old range planted centre and a detailed kitchen stage right. Gables and an overhead moors backdrop arch above. ‘It’s old’ agrees the protagonist George simply as assistant director John speculates on its antiquity. A bit biblical, which fits this work. Paul Pyant’s lighting suggests an unusually bright Yorkshire day – set on a remote farm just outside York. It’s when the shadows fall that Richard Taylor’s achingly evocative cello and piano score emerges, alternating simple chords. Emma Laxton’s sound too respects this small space – it doesn’t always happen and is crucial in this play, set in the early 1960s.
Fluid in chronology with one early lurch backwards we discover farm labourer George’s admirer, John, has come to reclaim him from dropping out of the York Mysteries he’s assistant-directing. Gill had found himself in just such a position under William Gaskell, but John’s no Gill. John’s a man who can admire something for being old, like a range, because he’s a tourist in his own country. John’s admonition to save the range succeeds. As does his bid to reclaim George as a superb realist hammering nails into Jesus in the York Realist’s Crucifixion play, mounted by the Pinners (the guild who supplied nails).
Jonathan Bailey appeals as both still wet between the London estuaries, but sincere: ‘I haven’t come for a fuck’ he pleads later. Pitching just the right amount of callowness he’s no stereotype but a man in the full shock of sexual attraction. As the two men walk out to the deserted cottage once housed by George’s sister and brother-in-law you see their shining evening faces on their return. It’s heart-stopping.
And George appreciates what London offers in a doxology, his longest speech, he clacks off its cultural allurements of galleries, Oxford Street, ballets, theatre. Ben Batt’s slow-release angst acts like a dry stone wall against the force of John’s arguments: porous but enduring. ‘I live here’ his riposte to all that’s offered comes like ‘because it is my name’; or more closely since these are Chapel folk ‘Here I stand; I can do no other.’
What none of this can convey is gill’s deft sashaying in and out of recent past, to George’s and Johns’ first meeting where Mother – dead at the play’s opening – bustles in to record their very first meeting. There’s a knot of time near the end when for ten seconds three moments are played simultaneously. It’s just a bubble of Gill’s more modernist self escaping to underscore how everything unravels.
Two themes plainly emerge. There’s no opposition to George as actor – his family and friends are awed – or, tacitly, in his being gay. Conflicts arise from George himself; that’s what’s so illuminating and original. The other is the age-old town/country divide, only partly of circumstance.
Around the achingly locked lovers constellate Lesley Nicol’s fussy Mother, ever spoiling George but somehow never embittering his sister Barbara (Lucy Black), the shrewd, never acid elder who gently tells George’s admirer Doreen – who put him up to the Mysteries in the first place – that George isn’t the marrying kind. In spite of all her chapel-going and her genuine attachment to Mother, Doreen knows. She’s not simply conniving to get closer to George, though she equally can’t help herself: his sensitivity and shrouded erudition are just some of the attractions for this Sunday school teacher.
Katie West’s hesitant hopeless love is one of the Gill-like jewels of this production; and Batt allows it to seep through in a typical Gill-like quibble: ’Well, no. I dunno. I’m all right’ to John’s probing about what being ‘sorted’ with Doreen means. West’s wave-lapping assertions, her ultimately taking over Mother’s role – symbolically asking George to put out some bulbs at a crucial point of the play – attest to a long game; growth and a future. But she’s no clear wrecker either. When John makes one decision, Doreen’s terrified he’ll leave and calls George to stop him.
Barbara’s badinage is welcome too. Black’s skilful negotiation of cheery raillery through muted warmth turns rapidly when dealing with her son Jack (an assured debut in gawk and angle by Brian Fletcher) and her phlegmatically good-natured husband Arthur. Matthew Wilson’s bluffness here portrays one of those concealed encounters between a nominally heterosexual man and one who knows himself as George does. It’s there in Gill’s 1997 Cardiff East and Gill repeats his subtle undermining project of refusing to confine being gay to self-identified characters. It can happen to almost anyone, he suggests, who breathe in an air of denial.
It’s what Arthur and George have long settled. Batt and Wilson exude a homeopathic touch of the tenderness of George’s with John in their ease with each other. And there’s humour here too, not just badinage in the swirl of familial quips and quirks, and mute gazes on John’s arrival. ‘God had a good voice’ remarks Mother of the Mystery plays she’s just witnessed. Ultimately though it’s Batt, Bailey’s and West’s interactions that make this production soar.
Gill’s absolutely clear this disjunction of male tenderness won’t be derailed or saved by anything but the two characters themselves. It’s a refusal to allow a love affair to be victim of human circumstance; only birth and place alone can sunder them. This production fully realizes Gill’s quiet universality. By the close, when George quotes lines from the York Realist (not from the Crucifixion, though) we’re on another plane from a superb play about love. It’s an outstanding play from the Cardiff master, as he might have been so termed in 1450, and this revival is as fine as we’re likely to see.