Revolution in the shed: the radical theatre of Buzz Goodbody

Goodbody was the first female director hired for a leading UK theatre, and transformed a corrugated tin hut into a hive of radical socialist theatre.

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Ten years ago in Stratford-upon-Avon, Josie Rourke opened her production of King John for the Royal Shakespeare Company. To distract her from her press-night anxieties, Gregory Doran, who was then an associate director of the RSC, took her outside to the river. As Rourke, now the artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse in London, tells me: “He walked me down to a tree they’ve planted in memory of Buzz Goodbody. And he talked to me about her King John in 1970, how pleased she’d have been to see another young woman tackling this military, macho play. There I was, in a season with Marianne Elliott, with Nancy Meckler, and it suddenly felt that she’d made it possible.”

Mary Ann Goodbody (“Buzz” was a childhood nickname that stuck) was the first female director hired on a staff salary at a leading theatre in the UK. More than 40 years after her death, she remains a cult figure. Originally taken on by the RSC as a personal assistant to its co-founder John Barton, Goodbody appeared to steamroll her way through the power structures of the institution: she was bold, socialist, ambitious.

In 1973 she gave an interview to the Daily Telegraph in which she complained that the RSC did little for local and working-class audiences. Trevor Nunn, her boss at the time, responded by ceding to her the Other Place, the RSC’s new studio theatre in Stratford, across the road from the main venue. There Goodbody lowered ticket prices and democratised audiences (who sat on mattresses until she found the funds for wooden seating), while producing some of the company’s most confrontational work.

In 1975, four days after the opening of her production of Hamlet, she committed suicide. Like the playwright Sarah Kane two decades later, she died at the age of 28, a feminist trailblazer memorialised as a tragic female cliché.

For many, Goodbody’s suicide marked her failure as a pioneer. She is cited all too often as a cautionary tale. At the Women of the World Festival in London this year, the artistic director of the Southbank Centre, Jude Kelly, recalled being told as a student: “Well, there are only three women directors in history. There’s Joan Knight, who’s a lesbian; there’s Joan Littlewood, who’s old and just retired; and there’s Buzz Goodbody, who has just killed herself. So, which of those three would you like to be?”

Goodbody proved that women could reshape theatre’s largest institutions. Barton discovered her at the National Student Drama Festival, at which he saw her adaptation of Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, and she remained an experimental radical to the end, her ideas forged at the vibrant University of Sussex in the 1960s. In a statement to the press on her appointment as a director at the RSC, she avowed herself “a Marxist-socialist revolutionary”. One newspaper, in turn, described her as a “young and militant lady director”.

At the height of the Vietnam War, Goodbody’s King John starred Patrick Stewart as an overindulged despot, watching battles of clockwork soldiers who, French or English, seemed indistinguishable from each other. Shakespeare had recognised war for what it was, she wrote in her programme notes: “a harsh reality fought for abstract notions and absent kings”.

Goodbody was committed to putting ­socialism on stage. In 1971 at the RSC’s London studio, before taking on the Other Place, she directed Trevor Griffiths’s Occupations, an exploration of Antonio Gramsci’s role in the Fiat Turin factory strikes in the 1920s. (Gramsci’s slogan “Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will” became the tagline for the production.) According to the theatre historian Alycia Smith-Howard, Occupations was “considered the first RSC production to affirm an unambiguous commitment to socialism”. Later that year, Goodbody dramatised the Oz magazine obscenity trial. The show was denounced by the press, with the result that the first night on 21 November was packed to the rafters.

In interviews, she sidestepped questions about her gender (“I certainly don’t approach people differently just because I’m a bird”), but she confided to friends that she had sought difficult, “masculine” plays to prove her mettle. In 1971 she co-founded the Women’s Street Theatre Group, escaping Stratford to curate protests in London with female friends. Years later, a comrade recalled protesting against the Miss World pageant with Goodbody, “standing in the dark with lit-up nipples and crotches with little lights flashing on and off”.

The Other Place did not outlive her long. Never more than a corrugated tin hut in the grounds of the RSC, it was closed in 1989, reborn as an extension to the swankier Courtyard Theatre in 1991 and soon flattened into the foyer. When Doran took over the top job at the RSC in 2012, he was determined to reopen the Other Place in Goodbody’s memory, and after Erica Whyman joined as his deputy in 2013 it became her project. In July this year, Whyman launched Making Mischief, a festival of new writing inspired by Goodbody, which she hopes will become an annual event in the newly reopened studio.

Goodbody joined the RSC at a critical moment in its evolution, not long after its foundation in 1961. “They all talk about her as though she was much younger and a kind of ingénue chancing her arm,” Whyman tells me. Goodbody’s male bosses weren’t much older: “In fact, they were all chancing their arm. They had no idea how enormous they were going to become, these directors and their institutions. Trevor [Nunn] was 27, 28, when he became artistic director. Peter Hall was 30, 31, when he founded the RSC.”

Goodbody’s suicide note read: “I am a tortoise without a shell.” It is thought that she felt vulnerable to artistic criticism. In her 1987 memoirs the actress Sheila Hancock observes, “The male critics wax sentimental about Buzz Goodbody nowadays, but when she was alive they were far less perceptive . . . They viciously attacked her main-house production of As You Like It, which destroyed her confidence for large-scale work, and ironically she died before her best reviews – Hamlet – were published.”

The preponderance of male critics remains a live topic in theatre. For instance, this summer, the reviews of Krzysztof ­Warlikowski’s production of Phaedra(s), starring Isabelle Huppert, were conspicuously split along gender lines. As Whyman observes: “From time to time, I and other female directors are condescended to in the theatre press in a manner that very rarely happens to our male colleagues.” In 1975 some things were cruder. On Goodbody’s death, the Sun reported on the loss of a “shapely brunette stage director”.

Yet piece together the details of Goodbody’s years at the RSC and what emerges is a woman who was extraordinarily self-confident in the face of opposition. Her battles were fought as much within the company as in the press. In a 1974 memo to Nunn, she argued that without accessible studio work to balance the expensive productions on the main stage, “Classical theatre will become like Glyndebourne.”

This is also Whyman’s central challenge. A few weeks after we met, in the early summer, I watched her host a panel under the title of “Rebellion and the Establishment” at the Other Place in Stratford. “We’re the Royal Shakespeare Company. We’re an institution with all the responsibilities, the employees, the communities we need to support,” she tells me. “So how do we make rebellion meaningful?”

Whyman is well suited to take on Goodbody’s legacy. By the time she arrived at the RSC, she had already been artistic director of the Southwark Playhouse and the Gate Theatre in London, and had worked as the chief executive of Northern Stage in Newcastle. When we first met, she was a few months in to a national tour of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which welcomed a new community group at every “stop” to take on the roles of the rude mechanicals. Goodbody complained in her RSC memo that the ordinary residents of Stratford were “notoriously hostile to us”. Four decades later, Whyman is putting local audiences on the stage, as well as in the stalls.

At 46, she is more than 20 years older than Goodbody was when she started the job. Not that anyone has noticed. “I am now reaching that age when I’m deciding it’s kind of blissful that people treat me as an ‘emerging voice’ in the theatre,” Whyman says. “But it’s really tough on the girls, the young women, because you are [only] cast in the role of young women for so long.”

It is hard to rationalise anyone still describing Whyman as “emerging”. Her work is more classically based than Goodbody’s and more influenced by the European canon. (She has a First from Oxford in French and philosophy; Goodbody, always embarrassed by her Roedean background, rejected Oxbridge as elitist.) Yet Whyman shares with her predecessor a faith in Shakespeare’s progressive promise: “He’s very, very good at exposing what’s underneath. So he’s not having it that women don’t have a voice, or that Jews or Moors don’t have a voice. And to come back to Buzz, I think that fuelled her and I think that also troubled her, because he is owned, or has been owned, by the establishment so very firmly.”

This summer, Whyman focused not on Shakespeare, but on new writing. Of the four plays in the Making Mischief festival, two were new and two had been nurtured by Whyman in previous incarnations, including Alice Birch’s Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again., which has just transferred to Shoreditch Town Hall in London.

Although run on a shoestring by RSC standards, the festival was well equipped to fulfil Goodbody’s dream of theatre that is instantly responsive to political events. The new directors received their script five weeks before opening: thus, Somalia Seaton’s Fall of the Kingdom, Rise of the Foot Soldier, in which a black schoolgirl denounces the pusillanimity of her liberal white teacher, is set in the afterglow of this summer’s protests by British Black Lives Matter. Goodbody’s production The Oz Trial opened just four months after the start of the real-life court case. Making Mischief’s rapid turnaround and its sense of national self-flagellation feel true to her spirit.

***

After Goodbody’s death, Trevor Nunn told the company, “Now we must further her work, without ever losing sight of her principles, her anger and her love.” Her anger pulsed through Whyman’s summer festival. Revolt . . . is a clenched fist in the face of conventional notions of womanhood. In one scene, we meet an elderly woman so resistant to motherhood that she rejects her adult child (Whyman compares it to King Lear).

Motherhood remains a fraught topic when Whyman and her peers discuss the challenges facing Goodbody’s successors. There are fewer inhibitions about the body in the rehearsal room than in the boardroom – which isn’t always an advantage. When Josie Rourke took over the Donmar Warehouse, she was 34, “And everyone had it hanging on their lips: was I going to arrive and then suddenly take maternity leave?”

A couple of years later, she responded by allowing James Graham to write her into his 2014 play, Privacy, as a theatre director named Josie who is pained by receiving targeted ads for pregnancy tests; the character, though childless, “was pregnant once”. It hasn’t stopped all of the questions. “I was recently directing a very senior actor, very established. I gave him a note, and suddenly he looked at me like I was a completely different person. ‘That’s a very good note. You’re good – you’re good at this. But just – just don’t leave it too late.’”

Whyman, who became a mother in her forties, is more concerned about the impact of low pay, particularly on parents who ­direct. “The whole system is a problem for parents, full stop, because if you haven’t got some financial stability, you can’t do it. As an industry, we’re having a conversation about the way directors are paid” – she is referring in part to the impact of Stage Directors UK, which launched in 2014 as a pay union – “and we haven’t got it right.”

Women mentoring younger women is also essential. A well-known actor-director told a colleague that she couldn’t assist on his all-male play because he felt it appropriate to have only men in the rehearsal room. Such attitudes became public this summer when an email was published, in which an organiser of the Windsor Fringe explained to a female applicant for a direction award that she had been rejected because “a male director would be better for this play”.

At the Royal Court Theatre in London, however, Vicky Featherstone, whom Whyman cites as an inspiration, is known for pioneering child-friendly scheduling. (Featherstone sees it as her mission to break up “a male-dominated, boarding-school value system, which not only does not welcome a more diverse way of behaving, but does not even really recognise it, or understand it”.)

And four decades on from Goodbody’s death, expectations still matter. “Whenever I arrive for meetings, people never assume I’m the director,” says Tinuke Craig, a black director in her late twenties who has assisted at both the RSC and the National. “I look at my generation and I’m so inspired. I think we can be the ones who make the change. Then I think, ‘How the f*** am I ever going to be able to afford to have children and live in London?’” More than one young director tells me that she was shocked when she found out the fees that her male peers were bold enough to negotiate.

Perhaps that impulse to ask for more is still a crucial issue. When I ask Whyman where she wants to move next, this extraordinarily able woman hesitates, prevaricates, then says: “There are only two institutions where I could have a job that stretches me [in terms of] what I’m doing now. Here [the RSC] and there [the National Theatre].” Is it so hard to admit to such ambition? Eventually she laughs. “I think I’ve finally reached the point in my career where it would be insane not to say that, wouldn’t it?” About female ambition, she adds: “It’s not that we don’t have enough role models in those big buildings, because we increasingly do. But women saying that’s what they want, that they feel hungry for it, and that they are entitled
to move towards it – we don’t have that.”

Buzz Goodbody didn’t seem to have a problem asking to be heard. Yet her tenure at the RSC was more painful, more troubled, than some of her male colleagues like to remember. Had she lived, she would have been 70. Whyman’s work at Stratford suggests that her legacy is re-emerging in her old home. It remains to be seen if her theatrical daughters make it to the top.

“Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again.” is at Shoreditch Town Hall, London EC1, until 17 September. shoreditchtownhall.com

This article appears in the 08 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Three Brexiteers