Can everybody hear me?

`Antony and Cleopatra' fell foul of the National Theatre's acoustics. Now Trevor Nunn is ready to make a noise with `Troilus and Cressida'. He talks to Stephen Fay

On the concrete wall of Trevor Nunn's office at the National Theatre are 44 black and white portraits. There are no stars and only a few familiar faces: Michael Bryant, Simon Russell Beale, Denis Quilley. There are a few actors you recognise without immediately being able to put a name to them. Men outnumber women, and there is sprinkling of black faces.

This is Nunn's new company of actors, an ensemble that is his first real gamble since he took over at the NT almost 18 months ago. They will perform six plays, the first of which - Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida - begins previews this week. It is to be followed a month later by Leonard Bernstein's musical version of Voltaire's Candide.

All the theatrical purists and historians hold that ensemble work is what the NT is for. It is what Nunn cut his teeth on in Stratford-upon- Avon. The mixture of tragedy and comedy, verse and song, perfectly fits his dual nature - part showman, part puritan. But just because he is good at it doesn't minimise the risk. All the recently received wisdom about the London theatre suggests that it is driven by market forces, and needs stars like Kevin Spacey and Nicole Kidman, even though they will stay only for short runs. By bucking the trend, Nunn may be betting the store.

NUNN RETURNS to his office from a Troilus rehearsal shortly after 8.30pm. He consumes half a sandwich and takes the first sips from a glass of white of white wine before letting loose a torrent of talk. He has been rehearsing for 10 hours, but directors of the NT have to take long days for granted: the evening rehearsal is to make up for time Nunn has lost supervising the transfer of his successful NT production of Oklahoma! to the Lyceum in the West End, and in flying to and from New York where a Tennessee Williams play he has directed - Not About Nightingales - opened last week.

When Nunn ran the Royal Shakespeare Company in the Sixties and Seventies a colleague said that he looked like every Vietnamese waiter in the world. Though he is 59 now, you can still see what he meant: it is the shock of black hair without a trace of grey, the trimmed beard, the bags under the eyes, the otherwise unlined face. The difference between then and now is that Nunn has become a man of substance, physically as well as materially. He dresses simply in a blue shirt and jeans, but his tummy falls over his brown belt. He says that after losing three-and-a-half stone, he has put one and a half back on. He must have been enormous.

There really are two Nunns. The showman has made his fortune, wildly estimated at pounds 35m, from directing modern musicals like Les Miserables, Cats and Sunset Boulevard. This Nunn speaks the extravagant language of an impresario: introducing an ensemble at the NT compares "fairly precisely with turning round a supertanker in the Thames estuary". He contemplates it "with a mixture of humility, fear and nerve-tingling excitement".

The puritanical Nunn modestly points out that there is nothing new in what he is doing. The NT began as a permanent ensemble formed around Laurence Olivier's legend; Sir Peter Hall ingeniously found a way of continuing ensemble work in the three theatres on the South Bank. Sir Richard Eyre was the exception: "He wanted a new-play policy, and if a major writer wanted 27 black people and two nuns, he got it," says Nunn.

The showman enthuses about the Millennium year as a time for something special. The puritan embraces the possibility of failure: "If audiences no longer wish to follow the fortunes of a company and must have stars, we'll have to learn that lesson. But I've missed the ensemble principle gravely, and I think the attempt to bring it back at this juncture of the NT's history is an honourable one."

Honourable, certainly, but expensive too.

Directors in the subsidised theatre have been dismayed by Nunn's refusal to join their attacks on the Government's parsimonious attitude towards the theatre, especially in the regions. He believes the right way to get bigger grants is to keep quiet. "In the short run, he has been proved right," says a competitor. Last December the Arts Council announced a much bigger increase for the NT than for any other subsidised theatre - an extra pounds 1m in the next financial year, taking its basic subsidy to pounds 12,167,000 after six years in which the grant remained the same.

For the past few years the NT has stayed in the black only by consuming its modest reserves and ignoring its repertory tradition - charging higher seat prices for long runs of box-office hits like Guys and Dolls, Oklahoma!, Wind in the Willows and Peter Pan. These have proved to be great popular hits, but the breach of tradition has perturbed critics like the Guardian's Michael Billington who say long-running musicals are "not what the National Theatre is for".

Good houses for Oklahoma! and Peter Pan have enabled the NT to stay within budget so far this financial year, and the transfer of shows to the West End (three are running there currently) and to New York (there will be three transfers there by the spring) boosts its income. But Jenny McIntosh, the NT's executive director, reports that this extra money "is not enough to develop a cushion".

McIntosh adds that the pounds 1m boost represents about half the value of what they had lost through inflation during six years of standstill grants, so Nunn is initiating his ensemble at a time when the NT is financially insecure. He gets some extra sponsorship money from an anonymous American donor who lives in London, but his first two shows are in the Olivier Theatre, which is never cheap. If shows there don't do good business, the haemorrhage of cash can be frightening.

Nunn has before him the spectre of Antony and Cleopatra. When it opened last autumn with Helen Mirren and Alan Rickman in the leading roles, the run was sold out before the first night, which then turned into one of the great critical disasters in the NT's history, with Rickman's acting and Sean Mathias's direction attracting special derision from the critics. Nunn himself was criticised for asking Mathias, who had never directed a Shakespeare play before, to direct one of the most difficult plays in the cannon in a forbidding theatre. The gossip is that he did so because other directors has turned the job down

"It's entirely true that it is immensely difficult to get directors to work in the Olivier because of the extreme problem of the acoustics," he replies. Musicals work there because all the performers are miked and audible through the sound system. "I'm very used to people saying `I'd love to do it, but if it's in the Olivier, I'd rather not'. I've already done two-and-a-half shows in the Olivier, but I've got to put my money where my mouth is. I've got to lead from the front." The truth is that the Olivier sorts the men from the boys.

The lingering effect of the failure of Antony and Cleopatra is on the box office. At the moment when Nunn's ensemble needs maximum encouragement the audience seems to be waiting for the reviews before spending its money. Nunn's wager, which puts the NT's financial stability at risk to achieve his artistic ambitions, begins to look heroic.

IT IS 17 years since Nunn directed a Shakespeare play on a large stage, and he had become a virtual stranger to large-scale work some years before that. The work in small spaces was often brilliant (his 1976 Macbeth at the Old Vic is the best single Shakespeare production I have seen ), and he reverts to a small scale when he directs The Merchant of Venice at the Cottesloe in June. But now he is working in the wide open spaces of the Olivier, with a new stage thrust into the auditorium, designed to increase the actors' presence and improve the sound.

And, after a decade of big musicals, does he still love Shakespeare? "Emphatically," he says. "I think it's a 20th-century habit of mind to say that either you're a classicist or you're a populist. I don't enjoy that sort of specialisation." Last year Nunn chaired a forum at the NT on Shakespearean verse speaking, and realised how much he had missed it. When rehearsals for Troilus began he told the company they could forget the text for a week because they were going to have a Shakespeare workshop; he found it "exhilarating".

He got John Barton, his old tutor from Stratford, to talk about verse; that was "magical". Nunn is pragmatic about verse speaking. "I think that Shakespeare's style changed so repeatedly that one set of rules absolutely will not do. If it's a choice between structure and music on one hand and meaning on the other, I'm with the meaning."

In the absence of a cast of stars, Nunn is falling back on a theme that became familiar with the RSC at Stratford: "Shakespeare is the star; the work is the star; the company is the star," he says. But many members of that company became stars, like Judi Dench and Diana Rigg. If Nunn's ensemble works, some of those faces on his wall ought to become stars themselves. If, however, the company's fire is unlit and they do remain anonymous, Trevor Nunn's problems will be more about money than art.

`Troilus and Cressida': Olivier Theatre, SE1 (0171-452 3000); previews from 6 March; opens 15 March.

Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Henry Marsh said he was rather 'pleased' at the nomination
booksHenry Marsh's 'Do No Harm' takes doctors off their pedestal
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'

tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking in new biopic The Imitation Game

'At times I thought he was me'

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

music
Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

music
Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

art
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Len Goodman appeared to mutter the F-word after Simon Webbe's Strictly performance

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T makes his long-awaited return to the London stage
musicReview: Alexandra Palace, London
Arts and Entertainment
S Club 7 back in 2001 when they also supported 'Children in Need'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Bruce Forsyth rejoins Tess Daly to host the Strictly Come Dancing Children in Need special
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan plays Christian Grey getting ready for work

Film More romcom than S&M

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Review: The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
The comedian Daniel O'Reilly appeared contrite on BBC Newsnight last night

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
The American stand-up Tig Notaro, who performed topless this week

Comedy...to show her mastectomy scars

Arts and Entertainment

TVNetflix gets cryptic

Arts and Entertainment
Claudia Winkleman is having another week off Strictly to care for her daughter
TV
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Children in Need is the BBC's UK charity. Since 1980 it has raised over £600 million to change the lives of disabled children and young people in the UK

TV review A moving film showing kids too busy to enjoy their youth

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his winning novel

Books Not even a Man Booker prize could save Richard Flanagan from a nomination

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

    Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

    Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
    Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

    The last Christians in Iraq

    After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
    Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Britain braced for Black Friday
    Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

    From America's dad to date-rape drugs

    Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

    The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
    Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
    Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

    Flogging vlogging

    First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

    US channels wage comedy star wars
    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

    When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible
    Look what's mushrooming now! Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector

    Look what's mushrooming now!

    Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
    Neil Findlay is more a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

    More a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

    The vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Tenderstem broccoli omelette; Fried eggs with Mexican-style tomato and chilli sauce; Pan-fried cavolo nero with soft-boiled egg

    Oeuf quake

    Bill Granger's cracking egg recipes
    Terry Venables: Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back

    Terry Venables column

    Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back
    Michael Calvin: Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

    Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

    Those at the top are allowing the same issues to go unchallenged, says Michael Calvin