Bill Bryden: supremely gifted director who harnessed the ensemble’s power

The Scottish theatre-maker, who has died aged 79, brought us an epic 12-hour production of the Mysteries and the world premiere of Glengarry Glen Ross

Bill Bryden, who has died aged 79, was a terrific director and writer whose work was dominated by two governing ideas: a belief in ensemble and a passion for everything American. Both could be seen in his tenure as one of Peter Hall’s associates at the National Theatre from 1974 to 1985, where he directed Tony Harrison’s version of The Mysteries and numerous American plays including the world premiere of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross. As Hall shrewdly said in his autobiography, “Bill’s strengths are his obsessions” and “for him, work in the theatre has to be work among friends.”

Bryden learned his craft as a director at the Belgrade, Coventry, and then at London’s Royal Court from 1967 to 1971. But it was in his native Scotland, at Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum, that he first attracted attention. Growing up in Greenock, he was fascinated by his nation’s industrial history and in 1972 wrote and directed a stunning play, Willie Rough, about a shop-steward involved in socialist battles in the Clydeside shipyards. But, although it was that production that led to his invitation to join the National Theatre, it is difficult to overestimate the importance of his Greenock upbringing. It not only gave him a belief in the power of the collective but also, through thrice weekly visits to the movies, a preoccupation with America that, in 1980, prompted him to write the script for a Hollywood western, The Long Riders.

Denholm Elliott and Samuel West in A Life in the Theatre by David Mamet at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, London, directed by Bill Bryden in 1989.
Denholm Elliott and Samuel West in A Life in the Theatre by David Mamet at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, London, directed by Bill Bryden in 1989. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/the Guardian

It was his work for the National that marked him out as a first-rate director. He even survived an early disaster when, in 1976, Hall invited him to stage a Goldoni comedy, Il Campiello, to officially launch the Olivier theatre. Played in front of a distinctly unamused Queen, the production died a public death and Hall had to resist the board’s injunction to give Bryden the sack. His faith paid off a year later when, on a snowy Easter Saturday, Bryden staged The Crucifixion on the riverside terraces outside the National.

That was to be the start of one of the great projects of postwar theatre. Growing incrementally, The Nativity and The Passion were eventually joined by Doomsday to form The Mysteries, which played in a single 12-hour day at the Cottesloe in 1985. Harrison’s alliterative text, Bill Dudley’s domesticated design employing dustbins and colanders and John Tams’s music, along with a cast that included Jack Shepherd, Karl Johnson and Brian Glover, were all crucial to the production’s success. But it was Bryden’s vision that made The Mysteries a genuinely communal experience, in which a predominantly secular audience was temporarily turned into awayday Christians.

Bryden’s obsession with everything American also paid off in fine productions of Eugene O’Neill (The Long Voyage Home, Hughie, The Iceman Cometh), Arthur Miller (The Crucible) and David Mamet (American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross). It was often said, with some justice, that Bryden was most at ease directing men. But he also understood perfectly the fear and panic that underlies the blue-streaked bluster of Mamet’s petty traders and vaunting salesmen.

Bryden returned to his native Scotland to write and direct two epic pieces of popular theatre staged in the Harland & Wolff shipyards in Glasgow’s Govan: The Ship (1990) and The Big Picnic (1994). If the characters were thinly drawn, both pieces created memorable effects: in the latter I remember the Angel of Death hovering over a battalion of gassed, maimed Glaswegian soldiers in the hell of the first world war. Bryden also directed for opera and cinema but his supreme gift, shown at its height in The Mysteries, was for creating a shared experience in which we, as members of the audience, became not just spectators but willing, enthusiastic participants.


Michael Billington

The GuardianTramp

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