HOW WE MET

SIR RICHARD EYRE AND GITA MEHTA
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
The director Sir Richard Eyre, 54, was born in Barnstaple, Devon. After leaving Cambridge University in 1964, he worked in theatres across the country, winning numerous awards, directing films and producing drama for the BBC. Since 1988 he has been director of the Royal National Theatre - a job he will be leaving on 1 October. The author Gita Mehta, 57, was born in India, and educated in Germany and at Cambridge, where she met her husband, the publisher Sonny Mehta. She has written four books, including a collection of short stories, and has directed a number of TV documentaries. She lives with Sonny and their son in England, India and the US

GITA MEHTA: I think I first met Richard in my husband's rooms at St Catherine's College, Cambridge, in the early Sixties. There would be these notes very stylishly pinned by a great knife to Sonny's carpet, so I wondered who this leaver of messages was - and then one evening this very good-looking guy came in, wearing a black polo-neck and jeans. And I wasn't at all surprised that he should turn out to be as stylish in the flesh as he was in the memo.

Although Sonny's friendship with Richard predated mine - and although it's unusual, when a woman comes along and marries one of two great male friends, for the friendship to expand and include all three people - Richard, Sonny and I then became friends on an equal basis. It wasn't like it was set in stone that I was always going to be with my husband; and we were all students together, which makes a difference.

Also, while I was at Cambridge there were no other Indian girls, so I felt overly visible - which is not something one desperately wants to be at that age. And what I recollect most about Richard was that he had a great gift for be-ing English - but without making one feel alien because one was Indian.

I remember once meeting the German ambassador in Delhi. The French ambassador was a great friend of his - they had known each other as students, fought on different sides in the Second World War, and then became very good friends again when they found themselves ambassadors to India. The German ambassador said: "How could it be otherwise? We shared so many crimes when we were young." And to me part of my closeness with Richard is that we shared small crimes when we were young - the little, silly, anti-authoritarian crimes of youth - you know, climbing into rooms when you could have been sent down.

Now our friendship just seems always to have been there. It's a relationship of the best type, one of such long-standing that you take it for granted: which means you may not see each other for two years but when you do, you pick up exactly as if you had had lunch the day before. With other friends you meet in a restaurant, you have a meal. You meet Richard and you walk around Broadway - it's more about being together than doing the obviously social.

We have passionate arguments, but never a falling out. I can't imagine a situation with Richard where you wouldn't be speaking because I can't imagine anything as petty as that with him. When we were students we'd have heated debates about whether the theatre was elitist or for the general public - I can't remember who took which point of view - but it was terrifically passionate; or we would argue about some writer or about politics.

Richard's also very funny. He does very good accents when he tells a story - I've always admired this British quality of being able to do all the voices. He leaves messages on the answering service which can go from Dalek to French.

When I have a new book out, he is fastidious in finding me wherever I am in the world and telling me he's read it. And he has: it's not just an empty: "Oh gosh, I see you have a new book out." So you can have an intelligent discussion - not necessary adulatory - about what you were trying to do. They say some of the best criticism is one that extends you; he's too much of a friend merely to praise.

I think if one thing really sums up Richard, it's his extraordinary nerves on a first night. Before he got married he would spend first nights with us. He would be physically sick with nerves because he had done what he had done with such commitment. Did I sympathise? Hell, no. I think I was envious, as one is always envious when someone cares for something that much

With Richard's pre-eminence, vanity would have to be the next seduction and he has avoided it. One of the proofs of that is that one thinks of "the National", one doesn't think of "Richard Eyre's National". Yet the mere fact that I find myself fighting to go to his productions - when I'm not a natural theatre-goer - is an indication of the kind of reverberations he's sent out.

I would consider it impertinent to ask him what he feels about leaving the NT. I do think one of the definitions of great friendship is intimacy without familiarity, and to me that would be a familiar question. I can imagine, knowing him, that dropping the administrative burden of never having any time to himself, and gaining the freedom to be able to direct plays that he wants to, must be incredibly attractive. Also, he is competitive - if you'd ever played croquet with him you'd know this - so I expect all his competitive juices will be flowing once he's free.

Will we be friends in 20 years? In 20 years we'll be like Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud in the Pinter play No Man's Land. With us there never seems to be any catching up to do - it's like an interrupted conversation.

RICHARD EYRE: I must have first met Gita in my last year at Cambridge - 1963. It would have been in my friend Sonny Mehta's room, which was always in semi-darkness and stuffed with books. People drifted in and out, and there was this extraordinarily beautiful young Indian woman who, with hindsight, I would say was uncharacteristically silent and quiet.

But when she made an impact on me, an absolutely indelible one, was a year later, when I went to visit Sonny in the flat he was sharing with her after leaving university. Gita was being dazzlingly vocal. It was a star performance: she was in the company of Germaine Greer and Clive James, so was boxing with the heavyweights - yet she was actually outpointing them on knowledge, wit and speed of delivery. I think if she hadn't clearly been in love with one of my best friends I would have felt rather overawed by her, because she had the air of someone who had lived several lives. In a sense she had lived several lives, because she'd already assimilated Indian, Anglo-Indian and German culture, and was now busily assimilating English culture. She had the ability to be satirically detached from all those worlds and at 21, 22 I don't think I'd met anyone that cosmopolitan.

Gita fills a silence. She doesn't witter, she just loves talking, being challenged, being made to laugh - but she's one of those people who has the capacity to make you think better. She obliges you to keep up with her. She's a wonderful person to have an argument with, and I can think of occasions where we both have probably sought an argument for the sheer fun of it, on a variety of topics - rock'n'roll, books and politics.

When we see each other now, we go out for a meal or I drag her to the theatre - generally slightly reluctantly, although she's unstintingly generous if she's truly enjoyed something. I rather like the fact that she is always hugely sceptical about the theatre, and correspondingly surprised when it turns out she's really enjoyed something.

But the thing about criticism from her is you don't feel subverted by it. In a sense it is a compliment that she takes you seriously enough to say: "this isn't good enough". She may well be right, but at the time it's hard to take. Is there anything more unwelcome than the frank criticism of a friend? But she does have an ability to do it in a way that makes you think, makes you laugh and doesn't make you feel worthless.

Gita's game for anything - if you said: "I want to go and visit this building site in Alaska where people trap polar bears for their fur to keep warm and eat their livers", she'd say: "Yeah okay, I'm up for the trip." She's a sensation seeker. We went to the Wembley Rock Festival in the late Sixties and saw Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard. It was undoubtedly Gita's idea. She would get enthusiastic and say "we must do this" with astonishing force. I suppose the definition of true friendship is having the unspoken expectation that you would do anything they asked you to.

She's very, very tolerant of me on first nights. That's an example of her perfect hospitality. I suppose with hindsight I probably abused it. Gita would say: "How can you get so worried, it's only a show?", and I would envy her her cosmic insouciance. I always argue life is in the minding. She says she envies the fact I'm getting anxious because it's a huge enterprise involving a large number of people, whereas she says if she writes a book or doesn't write a book it's not going to change the world.

I guess that there are long passages where we haven't been in touch, but you pick up where you left off. If I haven't seen her for a year - probably the longest period - it's just picking up with an old pal and that constancy is a terrific reassurance.

Will we be friends in 20 years? I hope so. I think we'll probably seek each other out - in order to keep ourselves alive by finding subjects on which we can disagree ferociously.

`A River Sutra', the stage adaptation of Gita Mehta's eponymous short- story collection, is at Three Mills Island Studios, E3 (0171 928 2252), from Fri to 4 Oct.

Comments