Giles Croft revitalises Nottingham Playhouse
Whenever seasoned theatregoers reminisce about the good times at Nottingham Playhouse, they usually refer to two artistic directors who established its reputation for great theatre: John Neville, a West End idol of the 1950s and an acclaimed classical actor; and Sir Richard Eyre who held the post for five years before running the National Theatre.
In future theatre aficionados may mention in the same breath Giles Croft. He took on the challenge of running Nottingham Playhouse 16 years ago at a time when it was struggling financially. Now it is one of the most important regional theatres in the country.
Fascinating times are ahead. The Playhouse has unveiled its new season which has several highlights including Nottingham-born Vicky McClure’s first stage appearance for 12 years and the first stage play by crime writer John Harvey which is set in Nottinghamshire.
Giles is excited about the work that will be produced over the next few months.
“We’ve got a fantastic actor coming to star in the 40th anniversary of arguably the best Nottingham play of all (Stephen Lowe’s Touched). It’s the perfect play for Vicky McClure.”
John Harvey, a hugely respected author, is adapting his final novel about curmudgeonly detective Charlie Resnick for the stage while Nick Wood is doing the same with Mick Jackson’s Booker Prize shortlisted novel The Underground Man, about the eccentric fifth Duke of Portland who lived at Welbeck Abbey in north Nottinghamshire.
” It’s a great season.”
“One will be on the main stage, the other in the studio,” says Giles. “How many other theatres outside London can do that? How many theatres in London can do that?”
Giles is also hugely enthusiastic about the rarely performed Thomas Middleton play The Revenger’s Tragedy which takes to the Playhouse stage at the end of October.
“We know it will be done beautifully. It will be a development on the production of The Duchess of Malfi that we did last year which was very successful for us. We took the risk with Malfi, it was successful enough, we can go to the next stage and make the work better, more exciting, more challenging and sell tickets for it. Fantastic. It’s a great season.”
When you talk to Giles it quickly becomes apparent how passionate he is about theatre and the arts in general. He mentions big names such as Tom Stoppard, Harold Pinter and David Hare not because he’s trying to impress but because these are people he’s worked with during an intriguing career.
For five-and-a-half years he was literary manager at the National Theatre, advising the then artistic director Richard Eyre about which plays to put on.
“If you’re running the National Theatre you’re extremely busy and you can’t meet everybody. So I would be talking to Nick Hytner, Sam Mendes, Deborah Warner or whoever about the plays they might want to do. I knew what the National Theatre wanted so I talked to them, refined their choices and I would go back to Richard and say ‘these are the two or three plays that I think feel right’ and a choice would be made.
“I would also have to go and see a lot of work so I’d be going around the country or abroad, reporting back, seeing artists, meeting writers – what a great job! Why did I give it up?” asks Giles in a humorous and self-deprecating way.
So why did he give it up?
“Two reasons really. I don’t think I really knew this until I’d been at the National for maybe three-and-a-half or four years but I began to realise that I liked directing plays and I wasn’t directing. I did a radio play, I did a couple of staged readings for the National Theatre, I did some stuff at the Edinburgh Festival but I wasn’t directing much so I was starting to miss that.
“Then Richard announced that he was leaving. My feeling was ‘get out while you’re on a high’. So I started to let people know that I was interested in moving on. I applied for and got the job of artistic director at the Palace Theatre in Watford, which was great.”
He stayed at the former Victorian music hall for four-and-a-half years. “I loved being there – it was a new set of challenges. I directed quite a lot, three or four shows a year – that’s really where I learned how to direct. I’d done quite a lot before being at the National but the intensity of it at Watford was different – I directed more there than anywhere else.
“And because it was close enough to London you could get a lot of people coming to work there who might not have worked elsewhere. So Harold Pinter came to direct a show for me. We premiered quite a lot of really good work and we had a number of shows that went into the West End. It was a good time and I made a lot of friendships there that carried on.”
“They took a bit of a gamble I suppose and it worked out well.”
Then came the lure of Nottingham. At the time the Playhouse was producing quality work but finances weren’t great and the theatre was putting on only about half a dozen productions a year to try to make the books balance.
“There was an opportunity when I came here to see if I could revitalise the theatre,” says Giles.
“That was the first thing I said – I’d like to come here but I’d like to do more work. They took a bit of a gamble I suppose and it worked out well. This is a wonderful theatre.
“The other thing about it was when I was at the National, Richard (Eyre) used to talk about working here and how much he’d enjoyed being in Nottingham. I think that was also an influence on my decision to come here.
“I admire Richard greatly. I think he’s a good director and a very good producer, so having a sense of that personal continuity was an attractive thing for me.”
Giles Laurance Croft was born in Bath in 1957. He was brought up in a house where culture – mainly classical music – was taken seriously.
“I had an uncle who’d been a playwright and an actor but when I knew him he actually made chocolate, so the association of chocolate and theatre is a very close one for me.”
Giles took A-levels at the city’s technical college but didn’t go to university. He took up writing, had some short stories published and was asked to write a couple of plays. But he wasn’t too keen on the solitary life of a writer.
“I enjoyed being in rehearsals so much that I thought maybe directing was a better idea than writing – I didn’t like being on my own.”
His first paid job in a theatre was as a youth worker for what was then Avon County Council. He ended up running a youth theatre and an art gallery.
He directed a number of shows for a lunchtime theatre. “That’s where I learned how to do it. But they also needed people to act so I would act in shows. I was terrible,” admits Giles.
“I couldn’t remember lines and I couldn’t concentrate. I was awful but they were desperate. Now I suppose I get the thrill of acting by doing season launches or giving talks or introducing a show.”
Giles then directed a few shows at the Little Theatre, Bristol – an offshoot of the Old Vic. One of them transferred to the Lyric Hammersmith.
“You can see some of those European influences in the style of some of my productions.”
“At that point I thought ‘this might be a career’, so I moved to London and that’s where I suppose I began to make some sort of a reputation.”
Giles directed as a freelance in London for two-and-a-half years. He specialised in doing work described as “neglected European classics”. That led to his being appointed artistic director of the 55-seat Gate theatre in Notting Hill, which specialised in international drama, in 1985.
What attracted him to that genre?
“I suppose the style was part of the attraction. They were expressionist dramas or surrealist dramas and they weren’t naturalistic. That just appealed to my sensibility at the time and still does.
“I do far less of that work now but you can see some of those European influences in the style of some of my productions.”
Giles is particularly proud of three plays he directed at Nottingham Playhouse, all of them displaying those European influences: Robert Lepage and Marie Brassard’s Polygraph in 2003; Matthew Spangler’s adaptation of Khaled Hosseini’s novel The Kite Runner in 2013; and Tony’s Last Tape, based on the diaries of politician Tony Benn, which played in the Playhouse’s Neville Studio in 2015. In fact Giles is reviving it in September as part of the new season.
“They say something about me as a director that I’d be very happy to show to the world. If they were in the season tomorrow I’d happily invite anyone to see them.
“The work I’m proudest of has a simplicity about it. The Kite Runner could have been extraordinarily complicated but basically was very simple: it was an open space with some projections and actors. Tony’s Last Tape is very simple – it’s an actor, very little in the space, darkness, a dressing gown, a table and a few books. Although Polygraph had a lot of technical trickery, it was a really simple piece of work. That’s where I’m most comfortable: keeping it simple.”
Giles is also proud of the Playhouse’s involvement in two projects: Eclipse which was designed to address the paucity of black theatre in regional venues; and Ramps on the Moon which currently aims to employ more disabled people in the theatre.
Although Giles has been in Nottingham for 16 years, he has no thoughts about moving on.
“As long as the challenge feels like it’s a real one and one I can rise to, I’ll stay. It doesn’t cross my mind to think about looking for a job somewhere else.”
Giles hopes that if he did decide to leave Nottingham, his successor would inherit an audience that regards the Playhouse as home and artists who feel comfortable about working there.
“What I would hate to hand on is a theatre that has no relationship with regionally based artists and a declining audience. So if I can hand on those two things to the next person, they can mess them up in their own way and I’ll be happy!”
* This article appeared in the July 2016 edition of Country Images magazine