PLAYERS OF A GENERATION

The who's who of British drama captured in the portraits on the following pages commemorates a decade's worth of achievement by the artistic director of the Royal National Theatre. As he prepares to vacate the stage for Trevor Nunn, Richard Eyre reflects on his time in charge
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
To remember that there was a time when I felt that making a success of running the National Theatre was as improbable as scaling the north face of the Eiger I have to look at my diary. I write it partly for myself, and partly for an audience which I've never troubled to define: to say "posterity" would be pompous, and to say "for publication" would be (until now) untrue. I've often been asked if, like my predecessor, I would publish my diaries, and I've responded shirtily, and perhaps sanctimoniously, that I couldn't break faith with the people who have worked with me and trusted me, that I couldn't face the small betrayals of faith - the revelations of indiscretions, of insincerity, of half-truths and expedient flattery. But here is an entry from the day that it was announced that I would become Director:

"17 January 1987. Yesterday I became Director Designate of the NT. A bizarre sensation. I felt very sick after the press conference, where I'd felt as if I was performing a character called `Richard Eyre' - about whom I didn't have enough information to give a credible performance. At first I put sickness down to nerves, but I got home and was violently, painfully sick. Is this a metaphor for my life to be? Is this a sign? Caught the train this morning to Leicester v early. Photos in most of the papers of this elusive `Richard Eyre' character. I hardly recognised him. I feel no stirrings of epic purpose, no sense of destiny, and my ribs still ache from being sick."

A YEAR later I am attending my first Board Meeting: "11 January 1988. The spectre of the `Royal' National Theatre walks abroad. Max [Rayne, then chairman of the board] clearly wants it desperately - 'an accolade' for the theatre. Bit like Judith Hart accepting a damehood on behalf of the Third World. Max thinks that the NT's image would be enhanced. I disagree and say so. It's a useful distinction from the RSC, and the demotic 'NT' is attractive. To allow it to be assimilated within the orbit of the monarchy is to add another rivet to the theocratic state of Britain whose religion is the monarchy. Victor Mishcon supports Max. `We walk in troublous seas,' he says. Oh England! Most of the Board seem to support me."

A FEW days later: "Wearying week at the NT. Spirits rising and falling from hour to hour. I see the possibility of making administrative sense of the building but not artistic sense. What can I do? What plays? And how to do them? How to make meaning of the work. That's why I'm finding it so hard to decide which plays to do. The choice is bound to be construed as my colours nailed to the mast."

"20th January 1988: Talk to David H [Hare] about the programme. We agreed that the problem was to define what the approach was to the classics - ie what is our voice? PH's [Peter Hall's] voice was utterly clear text, morally neutral, visually uninflected. Ours must be more inclined to spectacle and 'interpretation', but maintaining a responsibility to the text. And I need to introduce a note of anarchy to the theatre. But there isn't an anarchistic gesture now that can't be immediately assimilated. The climate is dark and savage, and we should respond to that, not engage in the chummy humour of the times: them grinning at us grinning at them."

After several months as de facto Director I became official in September.

"1st September 1988. A week of almost absurd misery and insecurity. All the symptoms of nervous breakdown - tears, tiredness , lassitude, alienation, mixed with tension, self-doubt and remorse. Extreme fear mixed with total indifference."

A WEEK later: "Worst week yet. There are only four decisions worth making:

1 What play?

2 Who will direct it?

3 Who should be in it?

4 Who should design it?

In that order. And then the question: will anyone come and see it? To ignore that is to court disaster. I despair about bad faith, ad hoccery, being too eclectic (or having to be), and my own abilities. Am I a good enough director, am I big enough to do this job?"

IT GOT worse. And then it got better.

It got better because I became able to trust myself, and in doing so I began to trust the people I was working with. I began to see the point of the place: that the whole could be greater than the sum of its parts. I began to see that the National Theatre worked for reasons that I was too ready to dismiss as sentimental: a sense of community, a sense of common purpose, a sense of 'family', and I began to see this not as a burden but as a strength. I began to realise that to work in the company of people for whom you feel admiration and affection at something that you feel is worth doing, for the benefit of people who share your point of view, is just about as good as life gets.

In the theatre, contrary to popular caricature, we're unsentimental: it's a professional necessity. When the run of a production ends, the actors leave, the posters are torn down, the sets are discarded, the furniture and costumes are consigned to the store, and a new show makes its demands on your attention, on your loyalty, on your affections. It can be unnerving to an outsider - to a civilian, as some actors would say - the ease with which we open our arms to the new troops while the veterans shunt out of the station on the other platform. Now I'm on the departing train and the theatre will carry on unsentimentally (and successfully) without me, and although I won't deny the dark and often fearful territory that I've sometimes navigated in the past ten years, I will remember only the sunlit uplands. But I won't ache to revisit them.

IN 1996 I directed John Gabriel Borkman with a cast which included Paul Scofield, Vanessa Redgrave and Eileen Atkins. Expediently, we decided to have their faces on the poster. In spite of (or perhaps because of) a lifetime of public exposure, most actors dislike having their photograph taken quite as much as Aboriginals whose lives have remained innocent of the intrusion of the 20th century. To convince the actors that they wouldn't be mocked by the cruelty of a self-regarding opportunist I showed them a few of James Hunkin's pictures. "Mmmm," murmured Eileen with undisguised surprise, "He really likes people." It's his humanity which makes him, in my view, such an ideal chronicler of the one medium which always asserts the scale and the frailty of the human face and figure.

! This is an edited version of Richard Eyre's foreword to `Changing Faces - A Decade at the Royal National Theatre', published on Tues by Oberon Books at pounds 25. James F Hunkin's photographs will also be on display in the circle foyer of the Lyttelton Theatre, SE1 (0171 928 2252), from Tues to 25 Aug.

Comments