A life in the arts
Fifty years into his career in theatre, cinema and the arts, David Gothard CBE (MA Mental Philosophy 1969) reflects back on influential teachers, new ways of thinking, and bluffing his way to success.
Lured by Italian
I must have come to study in Edinburgh in 1965 for Italian Studies. Very few universities had them. By chance an itinerant retired officer came twice a week to my Suffolk state school, Sir John Leman, to teach me and one girl from the Lowestoft Covent School.
My family was from East Anglian villages on both sides: gamekeepers at Sandringham, hemp weavers on the River Waveney and above all, my grandfather was a Suffolk Punch horse man behind the plough. My father was a printer. In short we all celebrated heavy Norfolk or Suffolk dialect in all its glory. I needed the fluid and sexy release of language flying and not plodding. Italian gave me that.
Before I had completed a year in Edinburgh, I had been a translator for the Oxford expedition after the disastrous Florence floods in the late sixties and had written a paper on Dante that took me for a summer at Florence University studying literature and fine art. For a glorious month my fellow students and I entered the Uffizi Gallery at nine o’clock, one hour before the public, for our seminars. It took the whole month to get to Botticelli.
The Italian department in those days had the prestige of a great scholar, Mario Rossi, in its chair who had been at Trinity College Dublin as a close and working friend to WB Yeats, the poet, founder of the Abbey (National) Theatre, where most recently in the 21st century I have been an Associate Artist. Their expertise in Bishop Berkeley and perception never left.
Passing into new territory
In Edinburgh all arts students had to have a pass in Moral Philosophy or Ethics under one of the great Kantian scholars still in Edinburgh, giving it a transatlantic popularity, HB Acton. It allowed me to speculate and be free mentally with a language and thinking tradition rooted in the abstract and broadest vessel of thinking possible that gave it a good grounding for our colleagues who would later graduate and transfer to New College in theology. I was liberated by this, as I rejected "playing" at student theatre for most of my university course after serious play making in my childhood. A year later, as its partner, Logic and Metaphysics, became the parallel course, I was hooked and in new territory.
I had entered a school where "the Auld Alliance" between Paris and Edinburgh through Enlightenment, David Hume to Voltaire, Adam Smith to Rousseau, were still in the air, thanks to Dr George Elder Davie whose classic, ‘The Democratic Intellect’, was illustrated every half term with a "Meal Monday" when students returned to the village to fill the sack of porridge oats as it were. I celebrated Dr Davie by writing my thesis on the father of existentialism, Edmund Husserl and his Cartesian Meditations.
I lived in a shared student flat in Ramsay Garden where Noam Chomsky was the charmer staying next door sometimes as visiting guest of the new, already celebrated Linguistics department of the University. He seemed to alternate with Paul McCartney's brother whose team from Liverpool did reviews at the Traverse Theatre Club. (Superbly it was a "club".)
I am amazed at the post lifetime roots being in the early years. Between the actual graduation and a return to Edinburgh to be trainee director at the Traverse Theatre, eligible with the Scottish Arts Council because of the University background, there is a break of three years spent as a student stage manager at the Royal Court Theatre in London under the film director Lindsay Anderson and Willam Gaskill.
My first show in the Theatre Upstairs was on a Beckett triple bill designed by Jocelyn Herbert, legendary stage designer and especially Beckett's designer. A few years later this leads to my hosting Beckett at Riverside as he directed the San Quentin Prison Company a couple of times.
Riverside also incorporated the great postgraduate design school where Jocelyn had graduated from, the Motley Design Course, a link with Bauhaus and the thirties in Marcel Breuer. Production and training were hand in glove as it should be. This led to a postgraduate year in Budapest at the Bela Balasz Film Studio, shared with sociology and radicalism.
Traverse to Riverside
In the mid-seventies I received a call from the Traverse Director, the late Mike Ockrent, a Broadway legend for creating ‘The Producers and’ ‘Me and My Girl’ since. He had studied physics as my contemporary in the University:
"Do you want the good news or the bad?…The good news is that you have the Scottish Arts Council traineeship; the bad news is that you open the season in a few weeks with a one-woman play with no dialogue…Can you do it?”
I bluffed and opened the season, followed by a UK premiership of Strindberg's ‘To Damascus’. The one-woman show – the UK premiere of 'Request Programme' by Franz Xavier Kroetz, colleague of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, starring Kay Gallie – was the signal of poverty and the recession that dragged through the next decade and being a political football in the arts of community between Thatcher and her execution days with the Greater London Council.
The scene is set for UK and international work such that at the end of the year, ready for the Festival, the Scottish Arts Council and Richard Demarco sent me on a recce to report details on a new ambitious piece by Kantor in Krakow…. invited to the Festival by the Demarco Gallery. I was becoming identified with "foreign" arts. To be concise, with that Gallery I produced ‘The Dead Class’ in the Old Sculpture Court of Edinburgh College of Art where a BBC interview TV project sped it to London, where we used the former Dr Who BBC Studios and I was invited with its huge success to programme a new Arts Centre to be directed by Peter Gill. He later left to run and invent the National Theatre Studio and I become artistic director with an art gallery eventually under the Czech Milena Kalinowska, which is nominated for the Turner Prize.
My life has been in all the arts ever since, non-departmental. Scotland's great contribution was the long-term residence that I gave to Aberdonian Michael Clark as choreographer in residence, one of our greatest choreographers ever.
Kosovo’s artistic rebirth
Since then I resurrected the National Theatre of Kosovo at the end of the Yugoslav Wars, with a production of ‘Hamlet’ in Albanian and took it touring to destroyed cities. We also opened the arts programme of the first World Aids Conference in Durban as guests of the Zulu nation and Muslim students. I had studied African history at Edinburgh with the great Christopher Fyfe and was paying my dues.
There had also been a festival between Macedonia and Kosovo celebrating the return of the refugees with Vanessa Redgrave, Philip Glass, Martha Graham's Company and the choir of one hundred coal miners from Nova Scotia expressing solidarity with the Kosovan miners in the lit pit hats. Lulu entertained the troops.
There have been films on the way and I am proud that Andrei Tarkovsky, in residence at Riverside, got his full production money for ‘The Sacrifice’ as we planned what would have been his next film, ‘Hamlet’. Hanif Kureishi had been my typist as a poverty-stricken young writer who brought me a script called ‘My Beautiful Laundrette’, which we took to Stephen Frears who then persuaded his promo youngsters team to begin Working Title Films.
I am very happy that over the years I have taught, as a guest, creative writing at the University of Iowa, especially the Playwrights’ Lab. Currently, my own on or two small films give pride.