(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 1/24.)
Who is the most influential British director of modern times? Peter Brook revolutionised our notion of the empty space. Peter Hall has shown what permanent institutions can achieve. But arguably the greatest legacy comes from Tyrone Guthrie (1900-71) – even if his name is scarcely known to a younger generation. Even to label Guthrie as "British" is slightly misleading, since he once dubbed himself "a very Irish sort of Anglo-Scot". But this six-foot-five giant of a man was not only a great director: his unceasing campaign for the open stage has left its mark on theatres all over the world.
Although he worked at London's Old Vic from 1933 to 1939, Guthrie wanted to get away from traditional proscenium theatres. His first great adventure in open stages came in 1948 when he directed Lyndsay's Satire of the Three Estates at Edinburgh's Assembly Hall of the Church of Scotland, as part of the newly formed Edinburgh festival: those lucky enough to have seen it still talk of the production's flamboyant pageantry. In 1952 Guthrie was invited to create a Shakespeare festival in a tent in Stratford, Ontario, which led to the building of a magnificent thrust theatre when the festival became a permanent fixture. A TV programme about the Canadian Stratford inspired an eye specialist thousands of miles away in Chichester to set about creating a similar structure in Sussex. And so the story rolls on: the Sheffield Crucible, the aptly-named Guthrie theatre in Minneapolis and the new Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon – all owe their shape and style to the vision of this peripatetic missionary.