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Clifford Williams, 78; British Theater Director

Times Staff Writer

Clifford Williams, an associate director of the Royal Shakespeare Company starting in the 1960s who also directed several Broadway productions, including “Sleuth” and “Breaking the Code,” has died. He was 78.

Williams died Aug. 20 in London, several newspapers there reported. The cause was not given.

The director attracted attention in 1963 with a production of Shakespeare’s “Comedy of Errors” that critics described as a joyous extravaganza. It opened at Stratford-upon-Avon and toured in Europe and the United States, as well as in what was then the Soviet Union.

Two of Williams’ most successful directorial efforts, “Sleuth” (1970) and “Breaking the Code” (1987), opened in London and later moved to New York City. Both earned him Tony Award nominations.

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More than once he directed plays that some critics viewed as sensationalistic. In 1963 in London, he staged Rolf Hochhuth’s “The Representative,” which accused Pope Pius XII of not speaking out forcefully enough against the Nazis during World War II.

Five years later, Williams directed Hochhuth’s “Soldiers,” which alleged that Prime Minister Winston Churchill had had a role in the death of Polish Gen. Wladyslaw Sikorski, who was killed in a plane crash during the war. The play was closed soon after it opened in London because of a libel suit.

“One of the characters in the play was still alive, and he thought it was defamatory,” the director said in a 1996 interview with the Dominion Post of New Zealand.

Williams also directed “Oh! Calcutta,” notorious for its nude scenes, which opened in London in 1970.

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He traveled the world to direct Shakespeare, staging productions in Mexico, Spain, Scandinavia, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia and elsewhere. He also staged a number of modern classics that traveled to several cities. His version of August Strindberg’s “The Father” opened on Broadway in 1996 and in Los Angeles two years later. In a mixed review, the Los Angeles Times critic said that “at critical moments the director goes over the top.”

Other plays Williams directed in Los Angeles included a 1985 revival of “Aren’t We All?” by Frederick Lonsdale at the Wilshire Theatre, starring Rex Harrison and Claudette Colbert.

Born in Wales, Williams never formally studied acting or directing. After quitting school at 15, he got his start in theater as a dresser, helping actors get into their costumes.

During World War II he registered as a pacifist, joined the British Army and spent three years working on stage productions to entertain the troops. After completing his military service, he worked with various repertory companies in England and formed the Mime Theater Company in London in 1950.

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He made his directing debut in the early 1950s and joined the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1961. He became an associate director two years later and an honorary associate artist in 1991.

Williams’ first marriage ended in divorce. He is survived by his second wife, Josiane Peset, and two daughters.


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