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Dominic Hill - From Dundee to The Traverse

In the upstairs bar at Dundee Rep, the theatre’s two artistic directors are sitting apart. Given that one of them, Dominic Hill, is about to leave his post after five years to ease his way into his new job as artistic director of Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre following this week’s opening of his production of Peer Gynt, you might think some long festering impasse has finally come to a head. Especially as Hill’s co-director James Brining – also the theatre’s Executive Director – sits on the next table to Hill with his back to him while Hill sits alone with a bowl of soup.

First glances, though, can be deceptive. As it turns out, Brining is in a meeting with writer Colin Teevan, whose adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s picaresque epic attempts to convert a very Norwegian yarn into a far more familiar and contemporary looking romp. Hill, it transpires, has been on the go in the rehearsal room all morning, and is catching his breath and some much needed sustenance before squaring up to the play’s weighty technical requirements.

Peer Gynt, of course, is a monster of a play. Once thought unstageable, it was famously referenced in Willy Russell’s play, Educating Rita, in which the chirpy auto-didact hairdresser of the title, upon being asked how such apparent restrictions might be circum-navigated today, famously answered that you might ‘do it on the radio.’ Hill, however, is no stranger to big plays, having worked in Dundee on the likes of David Greig’s new version of Alfred Jarry’s Ubu The King, which framed the action inside an old people’s home. Hill also directed a brilliant version of Howard Barker’s Scenes From An Execution, and more recently transposed Samuel Beckett’s sandpit set absurdist classic, Happy Days, onto the main stage. Peer Gynt, though, is something else again.

“I love it,” Hill says unequivocally about the play. “It’s such a weird ambiguous thing that it’s great to try and find out what it’s about. I had a particular thing that I wanted to try and explore, which is about it not being this kind of folksy tale, which I felt removed it from what it was trying to say. So we’ve given it a modern context, but without it being full of mobile phones, Hello magazine and people taking cocaine. That way it feels immediate and accessible, but it also feels insane.

“I suppose the thought behind it was of a guy living in a small town out in the sticks, who as a teenager finds life and everyone around him unbearably mediocre, and who dreams of escaping to something bigger and better. That’s identifiable enough, but we’re not making it about The X-Factor or anything like that. It’s still written in verse, with this rough language.

“But I think what it addressed in the 19th century still feels very relevant now. All this stuff about identity and who we are. One of the things I really love about the play is wondering what makes a life valid. Peer Gynt has this loathing of mediocrity and this hatred of the idea of being average, so he goes on this wild goose chase in order to prove that he’s something special. At the same time, you don’t have to be Rupert Murdoch or have some contribution to the world.”

Hill points to the billboards currently gracing the nations highways and by-ways advertising celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay’s new vehicle. ‘Average’ goes its strapline. ‘The Worst Word In The English Dictionary.’ Such a notion sums up this new take on Ibsen’s getting of wisdom yarn, with Peer cast as a small town boy with ideas above his station, a kind of Billy Liar in a hoodie. With Trolls.

After such a stream of successful dalliances with classic plays of one form or another, Hill’s move to The Traverse, this country’s home of new playwriting and still the template for contemporary theatre in Scotland, may seem like downsizing. For Hill, though, whose career began as a trainee director at Perth Theatre during Andrew Mackinnon’s brief but visionary reign, the move is a canny progression.

“It’ll be quite nice to get away from endlessly having to interpret things,” Hill says of his last Dundee hurrah, a co-production with the National Theatre of Scotland. “I think I’ve done my best work in Dundee, and the opportunities its given me have been fantastic, and think I‘ve got a lot better as a director while I’ve been here, because I’ve been able to do the work I’ve wanted. Ubu, for instance, I’d never done anything like it. As a director that was a door opening experience for me, in that it was as important to be as conceptually creative as it was to stay true to every line of the text. I’d never been so deliberate about that before.The unique thing about Dundee is that you can just put on what you want. That sounds like I’m talking myself out of my new job, but I think it’s time for me now to work with different people.”

Hill will make the move slowly, working with outgoing Traverse director Philip Howard inbetween directing a play at the Young Vic, and understandably won’t reveal any concrete plans. He is, though, already talking to people about his 2008 programme. One writer he mentions who he’s a fan of is Simon Stephens, whose work has appeared at The Traverse in productions by ATC, but who has never been fully embraced this side of the border, despite being a former Edinburgh resident.

While maintaining The Traverse’s place as the central hub of new Scottish playwriting, as someone who’s worked extensively at The Orange Tree in Richmond as well as stints at the RSC, unlike most directors here Hill is in a prime position to capitalise on his connections beyond the local. It’s interesting to note that peers who he references are head of Out Of Joint Max Stafford-Clark, who himself cut his directing teeth at The Traverse in the 1970s before moving to The Royal Court, and current Royal court artistic director, Dominic Cooke.

“Working with other people is a really important part of what I want to do,” he says, “and to have a building with a lot more going on it. Making other partnerships with writers and directors from wherever is essential to run alongside new Scottish work, which is the core of The Traverse’s work. But it’s not the only theatre that commissions new work in the way that it once was, and that liberates it, and allows us to look in other places.”

In the meantime, he’ll be proving that Peer Gynt really can work onstage.

“The first half isn’t as unstageable as some people make out, he insists. “It is a play that looks written to be performed and is quite straightforward. The second half is the problem. We’ve focussed on a man who thinks he is being himself, but has to take a good hard look at what that actually means. And there’s absolutely nothing folksy about that.”

Peer Gynt, Dundee Rep, until October 13

The Herald, September 25th 2007

ends

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