All set for a scene change
As Trevor Nunn tells David Lister about his plans for the National Theatre,
A founder member of The Independent David Lister joined the paper in 1986 as Assistant Home Editor. He became the paper's arts correspondent in 1988 and is now Arts Editor and writes a column each Saturday. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.
Wednesday 11 June 1997
Not much is going to change when he takes over in October, the new director of the National Theatre stressed. Richard Eyre's brilliant success and the reputation of the National were at such a pinnacle that "you don't fix what ain't broke".
And so he chatted about productions, a few premieres, the odd musical, a few Shakespeares. And afterwards the two of us chatted some more.
No, he would most certainly not be sidetracked by the demands of administration from directing: "The only place I know of for leading a company," he declared, "is in the rehearsal room." He was also quite keen on diversifying the National audience, getting in more low-income people and a more multi- racial audience.
And he stressed again that it was an evolutionary process. But yes, he did have some ideas. And when I added those ideas to his list of new productions it began to become clear that quite a bit was going to change actually.
Not surprisingly, one of the most gifted and exciting directors of his generation is quietly planning a suitably exciting and challenging era. Take the new slate of productions. It includes, almost unbelievably, a never-before performed Tennessee Williams play set in a men's prison. "Yes, I suppose it is pretty extraordinary to be talking about the world premiere of a Tennessee Williams play," Nunn admits. "It should be impossible really." It has been made possible by the persistence of Vanessa Redgrave, who heard about the play and begged the Williams estate for the typescript. The first night next February will, from a historical perspective, if nothing else, be the theatrical event of the year. Trevor Nunn will direct.
Before that there are two other theatrical events. Nunn will direct a new Christopher Hampton adaptation of Ibsen's An Enemy of the People. Nunn describes this as the first production of the play in London for many years, dismissing rather too peremptorily the powerful Arthur Miller adaptation a few years ago as "Arthur Miller's extreme version, a version that was more Miller than Ibsen". Immediately following this, Nunn's long- time partner in crime John Caird will direct Peter Pan with Ian McKellen as Captain Hook.
Then comes a feast of riches: Oklahoma, to be directed by Nunn and choreographed by Matthew Bourne of Adventures in Motion Pictures. With Sunset Boulevard and Cats behind him, Nunn says: "You won't imagine I'm going to be a timid apologist about musicals. I detest the terminology in New York that talks about 'musicals and legitimate theatre'."
There will be a mini French theatre season featuring Peter Brook presenting a French language production of Samuel Beckett's Oh! les beaux jours. Then Deborah Warner - who has told Nunn, "I don't want to go on being viewed as the serious one" - returns to the NT to direct Noel Coward's Private Lives; there are new plays by Michael Frayn, Sebastian Barry, Kevin Elyot and Frank McGuinness, and a touring production of Joan Littlewood's Oh What a Lovely War, quite a coup this as Littlewood notoriously loathed the concept of a National Theatre and has never set foot in it.
Then there are two strands which perhaps give a clue to the Nunn era. First the neglected plays. "As a hobby I read long-neglected tomes of plays," he explains. "I once got lucky [at the RSC] and turned up London Assurance. I got lucky again and turned up Wild Oats." This time he has turned up Edward Ravenscroft's The London Cuckolds, which will be adapted and directed by Terry Johnson, and Mikhail Bulgakov's Flight, directed by Howard Davies, concerning the descent into anarchy after the Russian Revolution and inevitably banned in the Soviet Union. "I'm interested," says Nunn, "in finding the neglected areas of the repertoire rather than revisiting all the things that have been done before."
The second strand is Shakespeare. Romeo and Juliet, Coriolanus and Troilus and Cressida are scheduled for the main auditoria. The Merchant of Venice and Henry the Fourth parts one and two for small-scale touring. That makes seven, a figure likely to be viewed with some concern over at Nunn's former fiefdom, the RSC.
"Now that the RSC has announced it will be out of the metropolis for six months of the year, it is even more important for the National Theatre to present Shakespeare," he responds. Equally, he is aware of the sensitivities involved.
"If I were still running the RSC and a cluster of Shakespeares was announced then I would certainly be alarmed, but this isn't a cluster. There will certainly not be this number running at the same time. And two major companies should not be doing the same plays at the same time, which has happened in the past."
Perhaps one has to look back to the Sixties with Olivier in charge of the NT as the last time that the National and RSC had discernably different characters and companies. Since then the cross-fertilisation has become unstoppable.
But Nunn is clearly planning to give his new home other defining characteristics. He says he will shortly announce a ticket-pricing scheme with reductions for first-time visitors, though it will be intriguing to see how one proves one is a first- time visitor.
He is also determined to expand the National's already healthy but in socio-economic terms insufficiently diverse audience. "We must gradually expand the repertoire to achieve greater access. The next group of plays that I will talk about will involve an Indian writer and a black writer. But an unfortunate way to go about scheduling is to say, let's make a note of each minority, of each special interest. The main thing you have to respond to is the passion of the people you meet who do the work."
It is, he finally acknowledges, "very possible that you will see considerable change", but it won't be overnight and it won't be for its own sake. "There's something in my nature that responds to gradualism and has never been comfortable with the idea of radical confrontation."
I mentioned to him one of the great theatrical highlights of the past 20 years, his musical version of Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors at the RSC with Roger Rees, Judi Dench et al. Did he plan anything so radical as a musical Shakespeare on the South Bank?
"Not a Shakespeare, no," he replied. "but I want to originate a brand new musical here. That's a real challenge." And thus, as a casual aside, the man who doesn't intend to change much signals another fascinating changen DL
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