Spirited actor who brought a powerful presence and a facility for high comedy to traditional and modern drama
by Peter Gill
Monday November 24, 2003
Some actors creep up on you, and some actors ambush you Gillian Barge, who has died of cancer aged 63, certainly didn't creep up on you. I first saw her in Peter Nichols's The National Health at the Old Vic in 1972, then the home of the National Theatre. Michael Blakemore's ensemble production included the then less stellar members of Laurence Olivier's company.
Gillian made an immediate and indelible impression on me, as a junior doctor forever falling asleep during the consultant's round tall, dark, elegant, sexy, real, charming and funny. She had already been in the company for some time, having joined an unusually talented group of young actors among the grandees.
She was born in Hastings, and started acting at 17. She trained at Birmingham Theatre School, and worked in live television, regional theatre and the West End. Among the many parts she played at the Old Vic, perhaps the most significant were Arsinoe in The Misanthrope, Varya in The Cherry Orchard, Isabella in Measure For Measure and in Peter Shaffer's Equus.
What marked her out as an actor was, like everything about Gillian, contradictory: she was, on the one hand, a powerful dramatic actor; on the other, she had a natural facility for high comedy. This polarity perhaps explains the variety of directors she worked for among them Peter Brook, Yuri Lyubimov, Terry Hands, Mike Alfreds and Michael Grandage as well as the very different directors for whom she was a particular favourite, John Dexter, Bill Gaskill, Jonathan Miller, Max Stafford-Clark and Howard Davies.
After leaving the National, Gillian became part of the Joint Stock Company in the mid-1970s, for an extended period at the height of its impact. She was in Yesterday's News, Fanshen and Epsom Downs; perhaps one of the most memorable images of her career was as Angela Rippon doing a striptease in A Mad World My Masters, for which role she took special tuition from a professional.
What the public didn't see was the encounter between Gillian and Gaskill, when she was the deputed member of the collective sent to reprimand him for some bourgeois misdemeanour. Both found it hard to keep a straight face, and neither let it harm their creative relationship. Years later, in 1991, Gillian gave a bravura performance in Bill's realisation of Mikhail Bulgakov's Black Snow at the National Theatre.
After Joint Stock, in the late 1970s Gillian was a founding member of Tina Packer and Kristin Linklater's Shakespeare And Co in America. She played in all the significant theatres in London: the Royal Court, the Young Vic, the Lyric, Hammersmith, the Gate, Hampstead, Greenwich, the Half Moon, the Donmar, the Almeida and the Royal Shakespeare Company.
In the 1980s, she played in Lyubimov's production of The Possessed, and was Paulina in The Winter's Tale. Two particular highlights were as Arkadina, in Mike Alfreds' Shared Experience production of The Seagull, and as Nicholas Wright's Mrs Klein, at the Cottesloe and in the West End. Her last performances in the theatre were at the Lyttelton in A Prayer For Owen Meany, and for English Touring Theatre as Gunhild Borkman in John Gabriel Borkman.
My working relationship with Gillian began at the Riverside Studios in the late 1970s, when she played Calpurnia in Julius Caesar, and was in John Burgess's production of Nicholas Wright's Treetops. She became part of a group of actors who, on a voluntary basis, provided continuous support for the developmental side of our work there.
When I went to work at the National, and was asked by Peter Hall to start a studio for the company, Gillian was in the original group who, through their exploratory work in the empty and unheated Almeida in the freezing winter of 1981 helped form the policy. She was later a regular collaborator once the Studio was established at the Old Vic annexe. There is a striking image of this group in an Alison Chitty drawing, still used as the NT Studio's logo. She is the most identifiable figure, cocooned in a large, shawl-collared sweater against the elements.
Gillian was always a rebellious dresser. She had a terrific figure and knew how to wear clothes, but there was always a deliberate mistake, a continuous source of amusement to us both. One of the last times I saw her this year, at a performance of Owen McCafferty's Scenes From The Big Picture, she was confronting the effects of chemotherapy head-on in a pink toque.
She remained faithful to the affirmations of the 1960s, adventuring open-mindedly into the left, Catholicism, Est, environmentalism, alternative therapy, Buddhism, gardening you name it. She never went up for a commercial, and though she always acted in television and film you can catch her somewhere in Love, Actually she gave her life to the theatre. What amused me latterly was her magnificent irritation after yet another asinine encounter with some smug dope at a job interview. She was up for anything as an actor, and had been in the thick of every phase and trend in the modern theatre; she just liked the rules of engagement to be genuine.
She demonstrated that good acting is often a sign of character. In her last illness, the extent of the devotion and loyalty shown by her friends and colleagues was a measure of the woman. As in her acting, her personality was also a wonderful combination of elements: at once, the grande dame and the constant hippy.
She is survived by her second husband, the actor Clive Merrison.
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