I’ve long been interested in the Citz because of a Certain Actor’s time there (1976-1988). The BBC2 documentary Blood and Glitter: 70 Years of the Citizens Theatre gave me a chance to learn more about this cultural treasure in the heart of Glasgow.
Brosnan: It was full-on theatre. The girls would always be naked,the boys would be androgynous, lots of eyeshadow. [Quotes are from “Blood and Glitter” unless otherwise noted.]
For much of the 20th century, the Gorbals on the south bank of the river Clyde was known as one of the toughest, most dangerous places in the UK, notorious for “razor gangs,” slums and unemployment. Here the Royal Princess Theatre, a Victorian structure used for pantomime shows, was reclaimed as the Citizens Theatre in 1945. Since then, the Citz has “grown old disgracefully,” developing a reputation for bold, avant garde productions of classic European drama, together with the work of local playwrights–all offered at prices accessible to the people of Glasgow.
Especially during the long reign of the legendary “triumvirate” of artistic director Giles Havergal, director and designer David Prowse, and director-writer Robert David Macdonald, the Citz was noted for beautiful men and naked women, served up with plentiful helpings of “blood and glitter.”
The trio favored material from the classical European repertoire, often relying on the skills of Macdonald in producing translations. Macdonald also contributed original material, such as Chinchilla, his play about Sergei Diaghilev, the founder of the Ballets Russes.
Hinds: There was a time when theatre was thought of as a middle-class pursuit. But here you are in the Gorbals, one of the strongest working-class areas in Glasgow at the time, and they’re putting on plays by Goethe and Schiller, Beaumarchais… De Musset, as well as Shaw and Shakespeare and Brecht and O’Casey, and they’re offering it up to anyone who wants to come in, and it’s a formidable conceit when I think of it. At the time, you didn’t. You just went,”This is kind of mad.”
Painter’s Palace of Pleasure (1978), another production featuring both Brosnan and Hinds, was a melange of Jacobean revenge tragedies drawn from William Painter’s Elizabethan story collection of Italian tales.
The list of actors who have trodden the hallowed boards of the Citz is breathtaking.
Gary Oldman worked at the Citz from 1980-81, appearing in Christopher Marlowe’s The Massacre at Paris and other works classical and modern.
Oldman: My time at the Citizens in the early 80s was a coming of age. The work was joyful, bold and exhilarating. In the years that followed, no other theatre experience could match it. —interview from Scottish Stage
One of my favorite Beautiful Men of the Citz is Rupert Everett, who was accepted as an apprentice there after being dismissed from acting school for insubordination.
Everett: Where I really blossomed was going to the Citizens’ Theatre in Glasgow, with the same director [Philip Prowse] who’s directing this [Pygmalion at the Garrick in which Everett played Henry Higgins (2011)]. The company was being run by three maverick, rather highbrow, queens in a slum in Glasgow, putting on plays that were far-fetched and demanding – things, for instance, by Goldoni. Because they didn’t patronise their audience everyone adored it.’ –Time Out interview, 2011
One of Sean Bean’s early theatre roles was in The Last Days of Mankind (1983) by Austrian satirist Karl Kraus, adapted, translated and directed by Robert David Macdonald. Co-stars included Ciarán Hinds and Gary Oldman. Bean appeared with them the same year in Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s Der Rosenkavalier.
And then there’s the phenomenal Mark Rylance. The earliest theatre credit listed in his Wikipedia entry is Desperado Corner at the Citz (1981), in which he starred with (among others) Gary Oldman and Ciarán Hinds. The play by Shaun Lawton was turned down by many theatres in London because of its obscenities and brutal images, but it was a triumph when it premiered.
Rylance: This was a place where anything could happen. We could tell really, really dangerous secrets behind the mask of it being a play.
Northern Irish actor and Citz legend Gerard Murphy was an audience favorite in the 70s and 80s. He began his career at the Citz and had the lead role as Diaghilev in Macdonald’s Chinchilla. In 2012 he returned to play the lead in Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape.
The Citz has remained a cherished home to many a local lad who went on to make his name internationally. Glasgow native David Hayman began his acting career at the Citz and has returned regularly over the last 40 years. One of his early lead roles was the notorious “naked Hamlet,” and in 2012 he was King Lear for new artistic director Dominic Hill.
Hayman: It was really exciting on the first night, one of the most exciting things you can feel in the theatre, where half the people cheer and half the people boo. And there were terrible notices. And what happened was the school kids decided this was too exciting to miss, so they came along on their own. Every night we had queues round the block.
Oldman: There was an irreverence as well to it. Someone might say to [Philip Prowse], “You can’t do that with Shakespeare.” And Philip would just say, “Oh, darling, fuck ’em.”
Outlander fans will recognize Scottish actor Bill Paterson. He too got his professional start at the Citz, debuting opposite Leonard Rossiter in a Brecht play, The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui (1967).
Paterson: A young English teacher took a gang of us to see “A Man For All Seasons,” I think about 1961. And I was completely transfixed. I adored the building. I’d been in quite a few theatres up until then – I came from a background of people who liked to go and see variety and all the shows, but I’d never sat through a straight play. And suddenly this astonishing event,with a common man, the character, a great Scottish actor called John Grieve, who told the story directly to us. That kind of Brechtian…pretend the fourth wall doesn’t exist. And I thought, “Well, this is it.”
The Citz tradition continues under the leadership of artistic director Dominic Hill. The 70th anniversary season highlights Scottish talent including a revival of playwright John Byrne’s comedy The Slab Boys, about three Scots lads stuck in dead end jobs.
The 70th season also includes an adaptation of Alasdair Gray’s acclaimed novel Lanark, which is set in Glasgow and its alternate-reality counterpart, Unthank.
As its name suggests, the Citizens Theatre is about community and connection, a tradition that is set to continue with a planned £20.5 million redevelopment. One of my favorite bits in the documentary Blood and Glitter was the description of “Friday tea” which the different departments take turns providing for their fellows.