Photo by Tim P. Whitby

Cancelling Terry Gilliam (again)

Gilliam is now 80, and seems as cheerily intent on causing trouble and controversy as ever

Artillery Row

Oh, I had been looking forward to seeing Terry Gilliam’s staging of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods at the Old Vic next year. Although Gilliam is best known as a film director, his productions of Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust and Benvenuto Cellini at the ENO were full of the visual invention and wit that have long been his hallmarks as a filmmaker. I was certain that he would bring similar chutzpah and dynamism to Sondheim and James Lapine’s postmodern fairy tale, which he was co-directing with Leah Hausman.

There seemed little other option than to cancel

 We live in an era, however, where we can’t always get what we want, and so it was with a mixture of surprise and disappointment that would-be theatregoers were curtly informed that the production had been cancelled altogether. A statement announced, “The Old Vic and co-producers Scenario Two have mutually agreed that the production of Into the Woods, scheduled for spring 2022, will not take place at The Old Vic.” Unusually, there was no attempt to make up some timely nonsense about covid restrictions or other face-saving panacea. The much-anticipated Gilliam and Sondheim collaboration would not be taking place in SE1, and at the time of writing it seems uncertain as to whether it has a future anywhere else. 

Why has this happened? Is Sondheim, the grand old man of American musical theatre, now unacceptable? Apparently not. Instead, it is Gilliam who is beyond the pale. The industry magazine The Stage has reported that staff and freelancers at the theatre were unsettled about the director’s involvement as far back as May, citing his comments on the #MeToo movement, trans rights and racial issues, which were felt to be at odds with the inclusive and tolerant attitudes expressed by a theatre where, notoriously, the now semi-uncancelled Kevin Spacey once acted as artistic director. A member of staff resigned, despite or perhaps because of a meeting that took place between Gilliam, Hausman and Old Vic senior management earlier in the year “to discuss our culture and values”. With further protests and unhappiness expressed by those at the theatre (not least the influential Old Vic 12 group, the theatre’s artistic development scheme), there seemed little other option than to cancel the show and suggest that the producers took Gilliam’s vision which Sondheim was said to be highly impressed by elsewhere. 

It remains to be seen whether Into the Woods will enjoy a revival in this format, or whether the involvement of a man who, relatively recently, was urging his social media followers to watch Dave Chapelle’s supposedly transphobic Netflix show will frighten off other venues and their staff. Such reversals of fortune have been a hallmark of Gilliam’s career. Famously, he was JK Rowling’s first choice to direct the Harry Potter films, but Warner Bros, fearing the involvement of such an iconoclastic and rebellious figure, nixed him, choosing instead to hire the safer, and infinitely duller, Chris Columbus, director of Home Alone and Mrs Doubtfire. One wonders whether Gilliam and Rowling both figures publicly accused of transphobia might now find an altogether different kind of common cause together. 

He was in fact a black lesbian called Loretta

Gilliam is now 80, and while many other directors might be forgiven for beginning to wind their careers down, he seems as cheerily intent on causing trouble and controversy as ever. In an interview with The Independent last year, he stated, with a grin, “People work so hard to be offended now. I don’t know why I’m doing it. It’s not fun anymore.” And yet his entire working life has been filled with similar battles against the forces of repression and conformity. When his dark dystopian masterpiece Brazil had been butchered by a terrified studio and then placed under indefinite moratorium, Gilliam placed expensive adverts in the trade press saying simply, “Dear Sid Sheinberg, when are you going to release my film Brazil?” It may have been artistic hara-kiri for many, but it worked. Although the film was commercially unsuccessful in the United States, it attracted acclaim, and Gilliam was nominated for an Oscar for best screenplay. 

Its story of a frustrated dreamer who was beset by the monolithic, totalitarian forces of conformity and worse had clear autobiographical elements that have recurred again and again in his films, from Time Bandits and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen to The Brothers Grimm and his most recent picture, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. The latter remains one of the most troubled productions in Hollywood history, and even spawned a documentary, Lost In La Mancha about the initial failed attempts to mount it, with a pre-cancellation Johnny Depp in the lead. (Needless to say, Gilliam weighed in on Depp’s notorious court cases with his former wife Amber Heard, commenting, “Like many of Johnny Depp’s friends I’m discovering that Amber is a better actress than I thought.”)

Gilliam, of course, began his career as part of the Monty Python group, albeit in a less visible form than the rest of its members: his primary contribution were the inimitable, often destructive cartoons that would appear at random, causing chaos and disquiet to the sketches. This bull-in-a-china-shop sensibility is a perfect shorthand for Gilliam’s abrasive, take-no-prisoners personality, which clearly found common cause with the ENO but which has seen him expelled from the Old Vic, presumably never to return. This is a pity for anyone who has enjoyed the vast majority of Gilliam’s work (we pass over his essentially unwatchable 2005 film Tideland in silence). At least those at the theatre who were aghast by a man for commenting, tongue-in-cheek, that he was in fact a black lesbian called Loretta “but undergoing transition I’m a BLT”, will not have to work alongside such a reprobate. 

Their gain theatre’s loss.

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