As theatrical icons go, few come bigger than Glasgow’s Citizen’s Theatre. Ever since the Gorbals-based Royal Princess emporium was reinvented under the helm of James Bridie in 1943, the Citz has been something far bigger than a local rep. Nowhere was this more evident during the thirty-year period between 1969 and 2003 when the theatre was led by artistic director Giles Havergal, who, alongside his equally maverick associates Robert David MacDonald and Phillip Prowse, put Glasgow and the Citizens on the European art-house map.
The recent – and sudden – departure of Jeremy Raison as co-director of the Citz alongside TAG’s Guy Hollands for the last seven years has thrown Scotland’s theatrical community into a huddle of quiet speculation over who Raison’s successor might be. While the theatre’s board is quite rightly taking their time over any fresh appointment, there is still Raison’s final gift to deal with. This comes in the form of Marilyn, a new play by Sue Glover commissioned by Raison and scheduled to open at the Citz in a co-production with Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum Theatre early in 2011. With the play’s original director now out of the picture, a replacement team needed to be found in haste who were not only capable of stepping into Raison’s shoes, but who could work with a new piece of imagined history that dealt with a twentieth century pop icon whose cultural impact was even bigger than that of the Citz.
As the Herald can exclusively reveal today, Marilyn will now be directed by former artistic director of new writing powerhouse Philip Howard. While Howard’s return to a main stage is exciting enough, the designer he’s chosen to oversee the project should have long-term Citz-philes in raptures of delight. Kenny Miller, after all, was the theatre’s resident designer for the best part of two decades, and was instrumental in helping to define the theatre’s visual style, not least in productions which he himself directed. For Marilyn, then, huddled together on garish electric green vinyl cushioned seats in a booth on a brightly-lit corridor just off RSAMD’s main concourse, Howard and Miller already look like a dream team to bring Glover’s words to life.
“I adore Sue’s work,” says Howard, “but because we were invited in latterly, I made myself a promise that I wouldn’t come on board unless the script was really good, because there’s not that much time to develop it. But I was particularly impressed by what Sue’s done with the play, because she’s created the world of Marilyn Monroe quite beautifully.”
When Howard approached Miller, it was something of a gift for this most flamboyant of designers.
“As soon as he said the words Marilyn Monroe I was in,” he says. “I was actually quite jealous when I heard the Citz were going to be doing Marilyn. The combination of doing the Citz and the Lyceum and being able to bring those characters to life is a brilliant. The script is fab and I can’t wait.”
The play itself is a fictionalised account of a true story when Monroe was filming Let’s Make Love in 1960 opposite Yves Montand. Monroe was married to playwright Arthur Miller, while Montand was with Monroe’s French contemporary Simone Signoret. Rather than concentrate on the men in their life, however, Glover puts Monroe and Signoret into one room and imagines their developing friendship alongside Monroe’s factotum.
Given its subject matter, there’s more than a whiff of old-school Citz about Marilyn. During Miller’s tenure at the theatre under the triumvirate, real life icons from murderer Myra Hindley to the mistresses of Hitler and Mussolini in MacDonald’s own play, Summit Conference, were fictionalised. The imagined meeting between Monroe and Signoret also resembles the tone of Terry Johnson’s Insignificance, which also put a version of the blonde bombshell at the play’s core. While Insignificance initially appeared on the London stage, Miller himself directed Johnson’s Cleo, Camping, Emmanuelle and Dick, which depicted the back-stage lives of the infinitely less glamorous but no less iconic key members of the Carry-On troupe.
The fan-base of the real life characters in the latter two plays, then, attracted audiences that might not otherwise have visited the theatre outside of pantomime season. Given her much huger status at every level, Monroe’s army of worshippers will no doubt grab hold of something that goes beyond the poster-girl image.
“If you’re going to a new play that can fill rep theatres like the Citz or the Lyceum,” Howard says without cynicism, “what is brilliant about this commission is that it is the one type of play that could potentially work in both. Also, given the Citz’s lack of engagement with new work outside of Robert David MacDonald’s plays, this is a real opportunity for them.”
“There’s something there about the deconstruction of glamour that the Citz has always done so well,” he says.
“Kenny was the only designer who would understand that,” says Howard. “Marilyn is so much an icon of our time, who out-Dianas Diana, and you can’t do a theatre show about Marilyn unless you deal with that icon.”
Howard and Miller first worked together on a stripped down production of Spanish playwright Lope de Vega’s seventeenth century play, Fuenteovejuna, as part of Oran Mor’s classically inclined lunchtime offshoot of the venue’s A Play, A Pie and A Pint phenomenon. Howard also directed a short piece for Oran Mor by Glover, whose relationship with the Traverse dates back more than twenty years to her hit plays The Straw Chair and Bondagers. It was at the Traverse too where Howard directed her 2000 play, Shetland Saga. Where all those works fitted with the sort of rural-based canon that Howard developed during more than a decade at the Traverse, the movie star world of Marilyn is something of a mould-breaker.
It is also the highest profile play by Glover for some time, which one might also argue applies to Howard and Miller. Not that either party have exactly been idle since they departed their respective institutions. Inbetween teaching dramaturgy at Glasgow University, editing volumes of Scottish plays for Nick Hern Books and dramaturging for Irish theatre company Calipo, Howard has been directing musical theatre students at RSAMD in a yet to be written work by Douglas Maxwell.
Miller has worked extensively both as designer and director with Scottish Youth Theatre and Oran Mor, and recently directed Borderline’s tour of DC Jackson’s the Chooky Brae. He also co-founded Theatre Jezebel, which to date has produced acclaimed productions of two American plays, Autobahn by Neil LaBute and Doubt by John Patrick Shanley.
While Howard and Miller are working on Marilyn on a similar freelance basis, and while both are unequivocal in their praise for Raison’s commissioning of the play, one can’t help but wonder whether both or either men would be tempted to move into the theatre full time if such a role was offered to them.
“They need to find the right person,” says Miller with the zeal of a prodigal returning, “and they’ll cast the net widely. But it’s always been a difficult place to run in terms of where it is and getting audiences in.”
As the Citz new boy, Howard is equally fulsome in his praise while retaining a critical distance.
“I think the Citizens has been brought to where it is now by the lack of vision of its funders,” he says. “They’ve tried to make it into an ordinary rep theatre, which it isn’t. All the Citz needs is a magnificent vision, and if you get that, it’ll work.”
Marilyn, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, February 22nd-March 12th; Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, March 15th-April 2nd
The Herald, November 16th 2010