15 August 2014 • by Christopher Haydon
"Gate Theatre puts women centre stage."Our Artistic Director Christopher Haydon spoke to Get West London this week about the Who Does She Think She Is? season. Read on, or check out the original interview here.
We all have our own ways of passing time on the tube, from catching up on lost sleep to composing anagrams of station names. Christopher Haydon, artistic director of the Gate Theatre, in Notting Hill Gate (ninth legit gloat), plays a game which has inspired the pioneering playhouse's 35th birthday season. "When I'm on the underground, I award myself a prize every time I see an advert featuring a woman who's not half-nude or in the background behind a man," he tells me in his basement office across the road from the intimate pub-top arena. "I feel very strongly about the ongoing under-representation of women in all walks of life, and they're particularly marginalised on stage and screen." Haydon believes attitudes towards females in film have regressed if anything since the 70s and 80s, when women were kicking cyborg and extraterrestrial butt in the likes of The Terminator and Alien.
The Gate's new 'Who Does She Think She Is?' season promises less in the way of guns and gore than those sci-fi classics, but is driven by the same idea of, as Haydon puts it, 'subverting the default position'. The director says when considering new work he always asks 'does it have to be a man, and does he have to be white?' Women are at the heart of all three plays in the new season, which explore the idea of identity through the eyes of a pregnant teenager, a woman who discovers she is her own twin and a schoolgirl who may or may not be the incarnation of a Hindu god.
You don't have to be a woman, of course, to enjoy them. "All three plays have these brilliant women at their heart but they're also looking at identity, and not just female identity," says Haydon. "The Edge of Our Bodies (the first play in the season, opening this September), for example, is about the trials and tribulations of being a 16-year-old girl. If you've ever been a teenager I don't think you can fail to connect with it." In a neat twist of fate, the theatre's hit drama Grounded, in which a female drone pilot battles with her conscience while waging war at a computer screen, is beginning a national tour just as the new season opens.
The one-woman show, which has already enjoyed a run in the US and passed the 100-performance mark, was originally intended to be part of the upcoming season but hold-ups with the other plays meant it slotted neatly into the preceding These American Lives season instead. For all the play's topicality, superb script and ingenious set, he says it is actress Lucy Ellinson's bravura performance which really sets it apart. "Watching Lucy is like watching Usain Bolt in the 100 metres. We're drawn to people who can do things in a virtuoso way," he says, adding that performing inside a glass box every night does make her 'go a bit funny'.
Somewhat remarkably, giving the Gate's reputation, this will be the first national tour for a production which began life at the theatre. This might not have been the case, explains Haydon, had the Arts Council listened to probably its most famous alumnus Stephen Daldry. In the early 90s, Daldry, who went on to direct Billy Elliot, had planned to take his acclaimed Spanish Golden Age season to all corners of the UK, only for the agency to reject his funding application. "We found a really angry letter the other day which Stephen had written to the Arts Council," said Haydon. "It had told him to put in a funding application and he had loads of theatres lined up to take the show but the application was rejected. "Between him making the application and it being rejected the Gate won an Olivier Award for the season."
Daldry is one of a long list of feted directors, including Thea Sharrock and Katie Mitchell, to have cut their teeth at the Gate. Haydon describes the theatre as being to directors and designers what the Bush Theatre, down the road in Shepherds Bush, is to new writers. Since being set up by Lou Stein in 1979 to bring international work to a London audience, the Gate's reputation may have ballooned but its bijou arena remains almost unchanged. However, Haydon insists the petite performance space is one of its greatest assets. "Being one of the smallest publicly funded theatres in London means we can continue to take risks because if something's a disaster the financial implications aren't as serious as they would be for a larger venue," he says. "It's almost the wrong shape for a theatre but our audiences love the intimate, really affecting room, which feels like it has a life of its own. "We try to reinvent the space every time we put on a new show, so the audience almost feel disorientated when they take their seats."
One of the biggest changes in the theatre's history was when it began receiving public funding in the late 90s, which proved both a blessing and a curse. The extra investment allowed the Gate to commit to paying all actors Equity rates for the first time, but that meant a dramatic reduction in the size of casts. When Mitchell directed Women of Troy in 1991, she had a cast of 20 at her disposal; 21 years later, Haydon's production of Caroline Bird's The Trojan Women used a cast of just five. Doing major work on a minor scale has never been a problem for the Gate, of course, and it's showing no signs of a mid-life crisis as it prepares to celebrate its 35th birthday, with a gala evening and a series of masterclasses with returning alumni among the events planned.