Theatre: All for Nunn, Nunn for all

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The Independent Culture
The National Theatre is about to open Maxim Gorky's epic Summerfolk, the finale to its six-play ensemble season. Artistic director Trevor Nunn, left, discusses the company's success with David Benedict while below, Paul Taylor considers if the play's sprawl makes Gorky the Robert Altman of his day

As a conversational gambit, "What are you up to at the moment?" may appear a safe if lacklustre question to ask, but it's absolutely the last question to ask an actor. Equity's startlingly depressing 1999 analysis of the profession reveals actors to be more familiar with dole queues than rehearsal rooms. They work, on average, just 11.3 weeks each year.

Happily, that's not the case for the 60 members of the National Theatre ensemble who, since January, have been in constant demand for rehearsals, matinees and evening performances of Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida, The Merchant of Venice, the musical Candide, the Victorian comedy Money, Rita Dove's relocation of Oedipus to the slavery era of the American South The Darker Face of the Earth, and Gorky's Russian epic, Summerfolk. The last of these (which begins previews on Friday) hasn't been seen in London since David Jones directed it 1974. That production came courtesy of the RSC, then being run by a young whipper-snapper called Trevor Nunn, the very man who has now resurrected the ensemble principle and applied it to the National, having become its artistic director in October 1997.

To describe Richard Eyre as a tough act to follow is an understatement and Nunn's initial period at the helm hasn't been greeted with a perfectly unanimous chorus of approval, but whichever way you slice it, his vivid and vigorous realisation of the dream of a well-honed ensemble has proved to be an unqualified success.

After the first major run-through of Summerfolk, Nunn looks tired but happy sitting opposite a wall covered in 10x8 black-and-white headshots of every member of that ensemble. It's very clear that he's extremely proud of their collective achievement. "The number of people in that group who can sustain a leading part in a musical is extraordinary," he says. "But you'd be hugely happy to have them if not a note were sung. That expresses something that I personally find very important." This man refuses to entertain the snobbery which consigns musicals to a realm of theatre distinct from the "serious" end of the spectrum.

Diversity has certainly been the cornerstone of this project. Where else would you find the same actress (Alex Kelly) switching almost nightly between singing the operatic coloratura of Cunegonde's "Glitter and Be Gay" in Candide and playing Portia's sidekick Nerissa in The Merchant of Venice? "And then playing a tiny role in Summerfolk quite brilliantly," enthuses Nunn. "And Merchant is immensely flattered to have Peter de Jersey, the lead in both Troilus and Cressida and Darker Face of the Earth, as Salerio."

It's true. One of the benefits of a well-balanced ensemble is that it provides quality casting in unusually welcome depth. As de Jersey himself observes, "If the guys on the battlements at the beginning of Hamlet are terrible, you feel like you're in for a truly terrible evening."

This year-long season has amply demonstrated what has always been upheld as the chief bonus of the repertory system, what Simon Russell Beale refers to as "the audience's sense of familiarity with a group of actors". However, that familiarity - bred on both sides of the footlights by a company tackling different plays in swift succession - also leads to a profound shift in the way an audience watches theatre. Seeing the same performers in contrasting roles makes you extraordinarily aware of the nature of acting. Surrendering to the blandishments of typecasting and the all-too-prevalent blurring between an actor and a restricted type of role becomes impossible. Likewise, the association of the characteristics of a role with those of the actor is banished as you cannot fail to focus on the versatility. Seeing actors as fresh characters each time takes you deeper into the world and movement of each play.

It also strikes at the heart of the difference between theatre and TV or film casting. "On the whole, in film you're looking for someone who already has the essence and the lineaments of the person being portrayed," agrees Nunn. "Curiously, if you do that in theatre it can de-energise the process because energy onstage comes from the actor's metamorphosis, from the conversion as they become somebody they really are not. That energy can be most exciting when the conversion is more extreme."

And nowhere is that clearer than when watching actors in multiple roles. One of the most famous examples was Nicholas Nickleby, an earlier RSC Nunn production which he co-directed with his current NT directorial companion John Caird. "An audience already familiar with those actors from previous productions were invited to see the process over and over again as the actors changed costumes and became different characters before their very eyes. You could feel an audience saying, `This, I suppose, is what as a child I associated with theatre'."

However, Nunn knows that an ensemble cannot be the only solution to the question of what the National "should" be doing. "The new play circumstance invariably gives the lie to the ensemble principle. If someone says `I've written a play for 25 elderly nuns in a convent', you can't say, `make it about two elderly nuns, several younger ones and a lot of men because that's who's in my company'."

Similarly, a necessarily large permanent company means that small- cast plays make economic nonsense. To revive a three-character play like The Caretaker would be suicidal if you still have to pay dozens of actors to stay home. The flipside of that is that most large-scale dramas date from periods when almost all plays were written by men. The opportunities for women across a season are noticeably less appealing. Indeed, several of the ensemble's leading women have been brought in late as they could not be cast across the season. Mind you, finding six plays with complementary requirements must be a nightmare

The RSC has been playing the ensemble game for years, but for the National it's been a crucial experiment, and one to be repeated after this current company disbands in December. Nunn, meanwhile, cheerfully views his mixed economy as a high-class hotel: "Some people come and stay for a while and then go off, but I very much want to feel that, in some parts of the organisation, it's a semi-permanent dwelling."

For tickets and details of all plays, call 0171-452 3000