Gillian Diamond obituary
Inspirational casting director at the heart of British theatre for more than half a century who believed in the ideals of an ensemble company
Tuesday 17 March 2015 20.06 EDT
Gillian Diamond was an inspired and talented casting director at the centre of British theatre for more than half a century, first with Peter Hall at the newly formed Royal Shakespeare Company, then with William Gaskill and Lindsay Anderson at the Royal Court in its second great phase, then for 15 years with Hall again as the new National Theatre opened on the South Bank.
A strikingly beautiful and robustly opinionated, independent woman – the director Peter Gill said that she had something of both Jean Seberg and George Eliot’s Dorothea Brooke about her – she was of that new generation in the subsidised theatre who believed in the ideals of an ensemble company, serious new plays, unflinching standards.
Gillian, who has died aged 76, cast Hall and John Barton’s famous and remarkable RSC Wars of the Roses sequence of history plays in 1964, Shakespeare’s quatercentenary year, as well as Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming and Peter Brook’s King Lear (with Paul Scofield) and Marat/Sade.
Born in London, she was the elder of two daughters – Marian Diamond, her sister, is an actor – of a Polish Jewish father, George Diamond, and his wife, of Irish extraction, Rosemary (nee Reed), who lived in Mayfair. She was educated at the Convent of Marie Auxiliatrice in Finchley, north London, from 1941 to 1954, apart from a year spent in the Cotswolds, followed by a year studying at the Lycée Française in London.
She then trained to be a mannequin and modelled the clothes for prospective buyers at a shop in Poland Street, in Soho, and learned secretarial skills in Knightsbridge. She joined the accounts department of Horizon Holidays in 1959 before becoming Horizon’s representative in Italy for two years. Now fluent in French and Italian, she went to the Sunday Times as an assistant for the launch of the colour magazine, at the invitation of its founding editor Mark Boxer.
She had worked briefly, soon after leaving school, with the director Clifford Williams at Canterbury Rep, where Marian was in the company. An RSC associate director responsible for casting, Williams invited Gillian to join him at the RSC, based in Stratford-upon-Avon and at the Aldwych theatre in London. The RSC also occupied the Arts theatre in Great Newport Street, Covent Garden, as a base for more experimental productions, and Gillian introduced many outstanding young actors – Peter McEnery, Ian McShane, David Warner, Timothy West – to this environment.
In 1967, now married to the actor and screenwriter Jonathan Hales, she joined her husband at the Phoenix theatre in Leicester, but the couple soon returned to London. Gillian worked with Granada Television on the Stables theatre project in Manchester with Gordon McDougall, and joined the Royal Court (where Jonathan was briefly employed as literary manager) in 1969.
The casting office, rather than the literary office, was the central hub of the operation, the “samovar room”. There, Gillian orchestrated the casting of plays by Edward Bond – she called him Eduardo Bondo because she maintained he was the least Italian person she had ever met – and David Storey, and forged important professional relationships with Nicholas Wright, the first director of the Court’s Theatre Upstairs (himself a former casting director), and the director Bill Bryden, who later joined Hall at the National. When Hall was appointed director of the National in succession to Laurence Olivier in 1974, Gillian switched horses again and, working at first with the casting director Annie Robinson, was a key member of the transitional administration in the Old Vic headquarters in the Aquinas Street huts and the new building on the South Bank.
Julia McKenzie and Bob Hoskins in Guys and Dolls, 1982, at the
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Julia McKenzie and Bob Hoskins in Guys and Dolls, 1982, at the National Theatre, which was cast by Gillian Diamond. Photograph: Laurence Burns/ArenaPAL
Over 15 years, she became a close confidante of Hall, speaking to him on the telephone early most mornings and supervising the casting for such significant productions as Pinter’s No Man’s Land (1975) with John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson, Ben Travers’s Plunder (1976) and Howard Brenton’s Weapons of Happiness with Frank Finlay and Julie Covington (1976, the first new play in the new building). She also cast Bryden’s production of Tony Harrison’s The Mysteries (1977) as well as Galileo (1981), with Michael Gambon, Guys and Dolls (1982), with Ian Charleson, Julia McKenzie, Bob Hoskins and Covington, and David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross (1983, a world premiere) .
In 1989, she became administrator of the Drama Centre in London for two years and continued working with Hall when he formed his own company at the Old Vic and in the West End. She took an MA degree in text and performance studies at King’s College London, and a creative writing degree with the Open University. She did much charitable work, acting as a carer for two girls with disabilities every Saturday for 10 years.
Gillian retired in 2008 but took up learning the cello in 2011, and was a committed dog lover. Her marriage to Hales ended in divorce. She is survived by their two sons, Matthew and Toby, her grandchildren, Benjamin, Rhiannon and Jessica, and Marian.
Peter Gill writes: I think that the side of Gillian expressed in her voluntary work was a reflection of how she looked at the theatre – for she was at heart an Ibsenite. Her favourite play was The Wild Duck and I feel that she judged things theatrically by the extent to which productions picked up the gauntlet thrown down in Norway 150 years ago.
She also felt that the literary theatre against which the Royal Court and Stratford East had set themselves years before was being replaced by an “over-aesthetised” directors’ theatre. She saw it as state-subsidised show business, and believed that the political changes of the past 20 or so years had created a theatre that was more and more ostentatiously liberal and less and less radical.
In the end it was the collaborative nature of the theatre to which she was committed, a vision really developed by the Athenians of the fifth century. Then, the theatre was essentially a religious and perhaps, more importantly, a democratic experience where the poet set down the idea and the actors and the creative team, as it is now called, brought it to light, with the audience as the vital element to bear witness.
• Gillian Diamond, casting director, born 11 July 1938; died 10 March 2015
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