Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Robert Gillespie: Shaw’s Women

By | Published on Wednesday 7 January 2015

Robert Gillespie is something of a familiar TV face, thanks to his myriad small screen appearances, most notably in sitcoms such as ‘Keep It In The Family’, though of course, like many actors successful on the small screen, he’s had a rich theatrical career too, as an actor, director, and writer.

Shaw's Women

His latest work is in the directing department. ‘Shaw’s Women’, playing at Tristan Bates Theatre throughout this month, is a double bill of two of George Bernard Shaw’s short plays, linked by the theme of marriage. I sent some questions over to Robert, to find out more about his career, his theatre company, and his current production.

CM: ‘Shaw’s Women’ is a double bill comprising two short plays. Can you tell us a little about each of them?
RG: ‘Village Wooing’ is about a clever, cultivated but shy man who tells himself that he can manage very well without a woman in his life. There’s a great deal of Shaw in the character and the author is laughing at himself. By chance, on a cruise, he is approached by a young woman, not of his class or education, but looking for a partner for life with something different, something special about him. She’d rather not be be married at all than tied to a dull fool, but she hasn’t, yet, given up hope.

‘How He Lied To Her Husband’ catches a couple in the middle of a marriage. The wife is dangerously flirting with a poetical toy-boy when the loss of some poems shocks her into realising that her very solid, rich, convenient and comfortable life is at risk. Shaw hilariously balances the pleasures of an ecstatic, short-term fling with a long and rewarding, economically sound, stable married life. There is a delicious twist at the end.

CM: What made you decide to stage these two plays? What attracted you to them in particular?
RG: I have always been drawn to marriage as a subject and to its central myth of monogamy. These two Shaw plays complement each other exquisitely. One is tender, sensitive, subtle about the never-ending project humans set themselves, trying to find a suitable companion. The other play has outrageous fun pointing up the mess we make when we are tempted into having naughty fun in the middle of a steady relationship.

CM: Are you a Shaw fan generally? What is it you like about his work?
RG: The best of Shaw is great writing, I think. True, he gets carried away by his ‘message’ in some of his work… but there is also so much tenderness and loving and warmth. Shaw liked people, I think, and thought them fascinating and valuable; in ‘You Never Can Tell’, for example, and ‘Pygmalion’. There is also intellectual rigour and sharp, truthful, painful paradox in his texts. His defence of the position of the arms manufacturer, Undershaft, in Major Barbara, is breath-taking and painfully true.

CM: Shaw wrote a lot of strong or interesting female characters. Would you agree that the world of entertainment and media still needs to work harder when it comes to creating enough good roles for women?
RG: I go so far as to believe that the greater influence of women on our societies and cultures could, perhaps, save us from an otherwise sticky end… wars, famine, the end of resources. On the whole, women settle for collaboration rather than competition-to-death. I am sure Shaw poured so much creative energy into his peace-making female characters because he understood this, even though he was, I think, personally slightly frightened of them.

CM: Can you tell us something about the cast?
RG: The casts of both plays are highly talented and not doing it for the money. I’m astonished and impressed by the varied range of work they’ve done from RSC to stand-up.

CM: You’re an actor as well as a director, and are well known for your TV work. Have you always directed? How does it compare to performing, and do you prefer one over the other?
RG: I’ve always been interested in directing, but the special push came when I realised that – as a result of my experience at the Old Vic, straight out of RADA – how many directors can’t find the right, the useful words to say to help an individual actor in a specific part. Every actor has a unique approach and unique strengths and weaknesses, and I enjoy working with them.

I enjoy directing just as much as acting, but within reason. In acting, there are some roles you that you take just as a job. I could never see the point of doing the same as a director, so, right from the start, especially in the King’s Head days, I’ve sought out neglected, or new, or unusual texts to put on as a director.

CM: You also write for the theatre, don’t you? What sort of thing do you write? Do you ever appear in the things you have written?
RG: I wrote ‘The Consumer’s Guide To Religion’ for ‘That Was The Week That Was’ which is probably the piece that has caused the most fuss and been quoted down the years. It is a Which-style report on six religions, and was performed by David Frost.

But more recently I scripted a two-hander called ‘My Heart’ about death (I thought it was the last taboo subject) in which a guy waits by the telephone for news of his heart transplant. I played it myself in and around London with an actress playing the other nine parts, including blokes. It’s funny, and there’s a lot about religion and science in it. It led to my adding pieces on love and war. ‘Love, Question Mark’ is my look at the Western European hang-up with monogamy; we are clearly not a monogamous species yet we aspire to it. What’s the biology and culture behind that, I wonder? It’s another piece for an actor and actress and it has played at three venues (so far) with a run at the Tabard, and I have another piece about war which centres on the idea that war isn’t futile as the sentimentalists like to tell us – we wouldn’t do so much of it if it didn’t pay off. I haven’t staged that yet. It would be nice to find two performers who could play all three.

CM: Jane Nightwork Productions is your own company. What are aims?
RG: Jane Nightwork Productions focuses especially on new writing or neglected scripts. There is a largely dismissed 19th Century French playwright, for example, called Eugène Scribe who was spectacularly successful in his day. We put on a translation of a play of his about a not-so-young-man’s struggle whether to marry for love or money. Very French… but also startlingly modern. The audience hissed and booed and cheered at the various twists and turns, some nights. Exciting.

Years ago at the King’s Head I got very smart at finding the most astonishingly good, but un-produced, texts… the four plays of Tom Gallacher I put on are an example, including the splendid ‘Mr. Joyce Is Leaving Paris’. I spotted Stewart Parker’s ‘Spokesong’ at an Edinburgh Festival and got it on at the King’s Head – it ran for six months. I have a resistance to writing which persuades us to live in an illusion – except when it’s funny. Men and women feature a lot because they’re the key social unit, with variations, and the starting point for almost everything that happens.

CM: Jane Nightwork is a Shakespearean off stage character. How did the company come to take her name?
RG: In my very first job straight from RADA I was two years at the Old Vic in Shakespeare. By far the best productions were Henry IV Part I and II at the end of the second season. In Part II, Act 3 sc.ii, Falstaff is reminiscing about old times with his legal mate Justice Shallow. He remembers the girls they knew, and he calls one of them a ‘bona roba’. Not a common tart, she was clearly married, but she made herself available, on terms, for that little bit extra in the house. She was fussy and had her standards; she obliged Sir John Falstaff, knight, but drew the line at Shallow who wasn’t noble. Bona roba means she dressed showily (quite a sight to see in Elizabeth’s day) but wasn’t at the lowest level of her part time trade.

Then I heard her name spoken… Jane Nightwork! I added this to the list of miraculously well-chosen names Shakespeare gives to his people… off-stage and on. If you read anything about the history of women in the theatre, you will get some idea of the sort of partial independence they achieved compared with their sisters in ordinary society; they acquired some sort of control over their bodies, their wages and conditions of employment. Right then, I thought, I would like a theatre company called The Jane Nightwork Company. What could sum up better what we do to earn a crust?

CM: What’s next for you, and the company?
RG: We’re a loose association of skilled people who get together when an attractive project comes up. What would be perfect is, if a talented odd-ball writer approached me with a superb script just crazy enough to put off the rest of the trade from producing it, but executable through our way of working. And if he/she was loyal enough to go on letting us have unbeatable plays till the end of time, that would be heaven. You can even make a profit, slowly, working in that way.

‘Shaw’s Women’ is on at Tristan Bates Theatre until 31 Jan. See this page here for more info and tickets.

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