This company is founded on the talents of every man and woman working in it, coming together to create something none of them could have conceived, let alone achieved, on his own. – Chinchilla by Robert David Macdonald
My first year as manager of the Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow was hard work, great fun and full of lessons.
One of the first lessons was how good it feels to have a full house. The two plays – Chinchilla and Goldoni’s The Good Humoured Ladies – we took to the Edinburgh Festival came home to the Gorbals. They did well at the box office. But the next show, Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw, had them queuing round the block.
The foyer is going like a fair, the box office phones are ringing off the hook and you stand at the back of the stalls, the house crammed with people. I’d never known anything like it and I’ve loved that feeling ever since. In any theatre – from the Ancient Greeks to the most avant-garde playhouse today – you cannae beat it!
Our Pygmalion almost got stopped. The play’s most famous line (retained in My Fair Lady) is when Eliza, dropping her poshness, yells: Not bloody likely!
Giles Havergal, the play’s director, did his research. He discovered the original manuscript, in the British Library. That line – which caused a scandal when first uttered on stage in 1914 – had been crossed out by Shaw himself (red ink, tiny handwriting) and replaced with No bloody fear! So that went into our version.
The Shaw estate, who controlled the rights, got wind of the change and insisted we cancel all future performances. It was at the end of the run, so we ignored them. Too bloody late!
Pantos aside, Pygmalion was the second most popular show we ever did (in top spot: The Importance of Being Earnest).
In fact, it brought the house down – almost. And here was the next lesson: dealing with a crisis.
It was the time of the Troubles and mainland bombings. Glasgow had more than its share of threats and explosions. A Wednesday evening, just after the interval, we got an anonymous phone call, saying there was a bomb in the theatre. The house was packed. The police came. They advised us to evacuate the theatre, but said the final decision was ours.
I conferred with the house manager. The performance had just over half an hour to the end. Could we get the audience out, search the building and then get everyone back in?
That’s what we did. Persuading nearly 800 people to go out into the cold October night and stand in a muddy wasteland (generously known as the car park) wasn’t easy, but, somehow, everybody went with it.
The search part was the scariest. I went going into the dingy bottle store, with a couple of the police officers. A crate of old bottles fell off a rickety shelf with a mighty CRASH! I keiched my breeks!
The whole operation took less than 30 minutes. The audience waited patiently outside. Though it was getting late, we decided to resume the show. It ended in triumph – cheers, whoops of joy and a standing ovation!
You want a rousing reception from your audience? Disrupt their evening, send them into the chilly darkness and make them miss the last bus home. But, always make sure the show goes on.
Lesson number 3 is – like so many I learned at the Citz – about the relationship between money and art. Pygmalion and that year’s pantomime, Puss in Boots, did such good business that we had extra funds to put into the final production in the spring.
This was a stage adaptation of Marcel Proust’s 7-volume literary epic, A la Recherche du Temps Perdu. Reworking the budgets, we managed to find enough for 18 actors, the biggest cast we ever assembled. Plus 18 non-speaking extras, many of them front-of-house staff. Hence 36 people on stage, but a dearth of ushers in the stalls!
The stage was hoaching – and so, thankfully, was the auditorium. For the initial run we sold out. Rupert Everett was one of the extras. So, we revived it, now with Rupert in a leading role.
I learned, though, that not everyone likes your hits. The director of the Avignon Festival came to see our version of this French classic. As he left, there was a distinct froideur. Maybe cramming the marathon text into one evening, playing it backwards and calling it A Waste of Time was too sacrilegious!
It was also a lesson in sorting out a debacle. Alan Rickman was to play a major role, Baron de Charlus, in the Proust. At the last minute, he pulled out. He felt he was playing too many clipped, urbane sophisticates or, as he put it, No more raised eyebrow parts!
A flurry of casting changes ensued. The rehearsal time for this large-scale piece was already tight. But, no time to fuss. The Citizens’ had, by now, been imbued with that great Glasgow motto, Just get on wi’ it! In the end, Charlus was played by Giles Havergal.
We postponed the whole shebang for a week and inserted a visiting company show, TAG in Pinter’s The Birthday Party.
If increased ticket revenue meant we could lavish cash on A Waste of Time, the reverse process – money getting tighter – had to be made to work, as well. Staying out of deficit was an article of faith at the Citizens’. If box office income fell, cast sizes shrank.
This – financial necessity as the mother of artistic invention – didn’t always work. Sometimes it did. Travels with my Aunt, which became an audience favourite, started as an answer to the question: What can we do with 3 actors?
And that’s the greatest lesson, which I continued to learn through all my time at the Citz. With talented people, flexibility, cooperation and – rarest commodity of all – sufficient money, you can deliver artistically. To a large audience. And balance the books.
Back to the Proust. Doing French at uni, I never got past reading Swann’s Way. But Philip Prowse’s production of A Waste of Time was achingly beautiful.
The set was a series of huge, gilt picture frames, receding from the proscenium arch, embracing exquisitely costumed, lost souls in poignantly juxtaposed scenes, cut across with Beethoven’s plangent chords about fate – Must it be? It must be! It made Proust tear at your eyes, your ears, your brain and your heart.
Apart from The Lion King, it’s the best piece of theatre I’ve ever seen.
And, forty years on, it still is.
by Paul Bassett, Glasgow, March 2020.
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