THEATRE / A quiet word with the director: Richard Eyre, director of the National Theatre, is a quiet man with high volume abilities. Mark lawson met him

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The Independent Culture
NEWSPAPERS talk in terms of 'pegs' for the pieces they run. An article is hung on a particular event. Richard Eyre offers the unusual possibility of four pegs: a phenomenon more common in cloakrooms than in journalism. His first book, Utopia And Other Places - its first half a finely- crafted family memoir, its second a collection of reflections on the theatre - is published today. His production of Macbeth opens at the National Theatre in two weeks. Eyre's diary also throws up two useful landmarks, vantage points for reflection on life and career: his 50th birthday on 28 March and the fifth anniversary this year of his replacing Sir Peter Hall as director of the National Theatre.

Hall, a big man with a booming voice, was a tub-thumping frontman for the National and subsidised theatre generally. He was prone to publicity initiatives like the 'coffee table speech', in which he jumped on to a piece of office furniture for an impromptu press conference, haranguing the Government for its arts funding policy and announcing the closure of one of the National's three auditoriums. Hall's enemies objected that he was everywhere except the National: an exaggeration, although financial need and restlessness necessitated Hall's absence on other projects.

In image terms, Eyre has been Harpo after Groucho. A diffident man, so softly spoken that his voice sometimes barely carried above the hum of the Kensington restaurant where we met, he has avoided the accusations of egotism and ambition that pursued Hall at the National.

'You're a far less high-profile director than your predecessor?'

'Well, Peter did put himself about a bit. He's also a very different character. He's one of those people who exude a strong sense of themselves and their destiny. I never had that at all.'

Even so, Eyre is not beyond the neat political gesture. His black Peugeot is parked each day in the space closest to the National's stage door, his regular presence on the premises thus advertised. And he has exercised artistic power so regularly - he ran the Nottingham Playhouse and the BBC Play For Today unit before the National - that his surface diffidence cannot be his whole psychological story, any more than bombast is Hall's.

'When you first read your name mentioned for the job, was your reaction terror or destiny?'

'Well, I've been thinking about this a lot recently, because of directing Macbeth: pre-cognitive dreams, the witches and so on . . .'

'Three witches appeared to you on the South Bank and said you'd run the National . . .?'

'Not quite. But when I was an associate director under Peter, we had these meetings and I came out of one and Howard Brenton and David Hare were writing Pravda in an office at the National. And Howard was tapping away with two fingers and I said 'You know, I'd quite like to run the National.' And Howard said: 'You should. It's your destiny.' And I was attracted by the idea of the working out of fate. But I've always been a mixture of strong will, wilfulness and self- doubt and, at any time, that particular cocktail can change its composition. So, through the interviews, I was determined to get it but I did, at first, find it hard to pump myself up with sufficient self-confidence to give a convincing display of authority . . .'

But the productions - his own and others' - during Eyre's tenure have generally been convincing displays. There have been new plays: Hampton, Griffiths, Bennett, Edgar, Jim Cartwright's Rise And Fall Of Little Voice and David Hare's state-of-England trilogy, of which the third part - Absence of War, about the campaign nadir of a reformist Labour leader - is due in October, directed by Eyre. Spikey revivals have ranged from the musical Carousel to Priestley's An Inspector Calls repointed as German Expressionism, to Robert Le Page's mud-wrestling Midsummer Night's Dream and Eyre's own 1930s Nazi Britain staging of Richard III. There has been a sense of critical trilling - the dangerous phrase 'Golden Age' has already been used - in harmony with the ringing of cash registers. There have been no coffee table speeches, nor shut theatres.

'The sense of permanent financial crisis around the National seems to have gone?'

'Well, we're okay. But it's a fine line. We have to budget for 75 per cent capacity, so if one production goes wrong you can lose half a million pounds very quickly. But, also, I've always been wary of a kind of constant bleating . . .People don't want to feel that the arts are a charity. They do want to feel that it has some connection with market forces. They don't want to feel there's a moribund manipulating culture where money is found to indulge the artist's taste while ignoring the public's. The whole idea of public subsidy has to be presented with some discretion.'

I said that I assumed that one difficulty of running the National was that you couldn't just schedule the plays you liked: you had to reflect history, genres, tastes, commerce. 'No. You have to operate in good faith. It would go disastrously wrong if I said: we'll do Play X, though I personally find it contemptible. Because, if it then goes wrong, you have no defence. Your only indemnity is your good faith. Trelawney of the Wells might look a good bet to sell out the Lyttelton. But I only do it because I love the play.'

Another problem of the job, surely, was attending the run-throughs and previews of other directors' shows, beginning to sense what they might do to the ledger? 'Yes, there is an art. Peter Hall taught me only to make suggestions which are achievable by the first night. You might experience three hours of rising horror, realising that the show is miscast and misdirected. But stopping it is not a possibility. Small practical hints are the trick: damage-limitation. That isn't to say that you don't pop back to the office and discreetly reduce the number of scheduled performances . . .'

Asked by Liz Calder of Bloomsbury to write a book, Eyre immediately ruled out the kind of hiss-and- tell memoirs he parodies as The National Theatre: My Struggle. The death of his parents prompted the director to write a record of his relatives. A grandfather went on Scott's first Polar expeditions: his vivid journals are owned, and quoted, by Eyre. The director's father was a womanising, drinking, upper middle- class anarchist, who left the Royal Navy when denied further promotion because of bolshiness. His mother was a star of local committees: 'A real poet of the list.'

It is easier to read the work of a novelist or playwright autobiographically than that of a theatre director. But - during Eyre's account of his proud, cold, military family - it struck me that the bulk of his most powerful productions have captured the habits and mentality of the English upper classes: the Falklands film Tumbledown and the Trevor Griffiths teleplay Country: A Tory Story. In the theatre, Granville Barker's The Voysey Inheritance, the David Hare plays and the alternative-England Richard III. Eyre agrees that his theatrical career was an alternative to being submerged in this world. 'Yes. There's no doubt my family intended me to be a barrister, a banker or a farmer. Something rural upper-middle-class.'

Eyre's parents had little interest in the theatre: his mother saw one of his productions, his father none. Despite the box office prosperity of Eyre's National, there seems to be a spreading sense of cultural distrust of the theatre in Britain. Accounts of bad theatrical evenings are a popular subject for broadsheet columnists. Nigel Planer's appalling joke actor Nicholas Craig and Private Eye's 'Luvvies' column satirise the performer as poseur.

Eyre's manner is not at all theatrical in the modern pejorative sense. Describing his coming production of Macbeth - 'I had a strong sense that the story doesn't make sense, unless Lady Macbeth is very young. It's a folie d'amour - he declines to use any of the superstitious euphemisms for the supposedly cursed work. With double jeopardy, Eyre has even scheduled his first night for April Fool's Day. But he denies that his lack of thespian gestures is deliberate.

'Not deliberate at all. Far from it. Look, I know this 'Luvvy' idea is prevalent. That theatre is sentimental and vacuous and just not worth the fuss. And, a lot of the time, it can be terrible. The line between it not working and it working is very thin. But, when it's good, it's good precisely because of that fragility. You do teeter on the edge. Will this actor be able to convince us? Will this playwright be able to sustain the idea for two hours? The potential for disappointment is very considerable. But I would offer the corollary: that the potential for enthrallment is also great. I have a small ambition to reclaim the word 'theatrical.' Because 'filmic' and 'novelistic' are just not used in the same pejorative way.'

Utopia and Other Places is published today by Bloomsbury at pounds 16.99. Macbeth opens on 1 April. Box office: 071-928- 2252.

(Photographs omitted)