Richard Eyre: inspirational force

With 'Notes on a Scandal' in the multiplexes and 'The Reporter' at the National Theatre, there are few more influential figures in British drama right now than Richard Eyre. Paul Taylor meets him
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Richard Eyre says there's a movie (Robert Montgomery's 1947 thriller Lady in the Lake) that takes the idea of a subjective central focus to a kind of reductio ad absurdum. Everything is seen from the perspective of the private eye Philip Marlowe, a gimmick that means he is visible only if he happens to glance in a mirror. When he puffs on a fag, smoke billows into the lens. When he blacks out, so does the camera. "But obviously," laughs Eyre, "if you have Judi Dench playing the central character, this method is not a terribly desirable option."

We're talking about Notes on a Scandal, the riveting film version - adapted by Patrick Marber and directed by Eyre - of Zoe Heller's novel. Dench has a deserved Best Actress Oscar nomination for her performance as Barbara Covett, a frumpy history teacher from hell. A jaundiced, repressed lesbian, Barbara imagines she has found her soul mate in the new art teacher, Sheba (Cate Blanchett), but discovers that the object of her adoration is engaged in a passionate affair with a 15-year-old male pupil.

Eyre and Marber have risen splendidly to the challenge of recreating the warped, claustrophobic feel of the novel (which is in the form of Barbara's journal), while allowing us to see things that Barbara is programmed either not to notice or to misjudge. The confiding voice-over; the secret diary; Philip Glass's urgent score - these features establish her distorted angle on the proceedings. Unlike the novel, the film presents the story chronologically, so we see her discovery of the affair and the moment when she decides to remain silent about it in order to gain emotional control of the younger woman. We're also given glimpses of Barbara in the wasteland of her weekends: as Eyre remarks "the sight of her smoking in a cooling bath seems to define the co-ordinates of her loneliness". All bitter, wrinkled face and dead, dyed hair, Barbara is both scary and pathetic in the depth of her need and denial.

At the same time, the movie permits views of Sheba that are undistorted by Barbara's obsession. This helps to highlight a key irony in the material. Barbara is convinced they are kindred spirits, but from her near-psychotically possessive perspective, she cannot see that their only affinity is deluded and misdirected infatuation. "There is something compulsive and existential about Sheba's loneliness," says Eyre, "that's a sort of parallel and mirror image to Barbara's. We didn't want a comfortable equation that allowed you to say, well, Sheba's husband is 20 years older than her, so of course she wants to escape. And if you cast Bill Nighy in the part, then certainly every woman in the audience will think she's insane." By contrast, Barbara, whose withering cynicism is a lively source of black comedy, regards the spouse as "some crumbling patriarch" ripe for supplanting.

It took "hundreds of auditions" before they gave the role of the pupil to Andrew Stephen, who was just 16 when they started shooting. "We were looking for someone on the cusp who was neither a child nor a man," says Eyre. In the book, the affair is filtered to us through Barbara's disgusted account. In the film, we see the cocky, callow boy through Sheba's glamourising eyes. With such an age-gap, the sex scenes can't have been easy and Eyre is full of praise for the skill of Blanchett whose performance "really endows the boy with great sexual allure".

I meet Eyre at the National Theatre, which he ran, to great acclaim, between 1988 and 1997, and where he is rehearsing the new Nicholas Wright play, The Reporter, for its premiere later this month. The piece is based on the last years of James Mossman, the BBC correspondent whose despatches for Panorama were highly influential - not least in waking up the English to Vietnam War. In 1971, Mossman - a gay, former M16 agent - took a fatal overdose, leaving behind a cryptic note that read: "I can't bear it any longer, though I don't know what 'it' is." In the play, the investigative reporter goes in search of the truth behind his own mysterious suicide.

Eyre suggests continuities between The Reporter and Wright's last play, Vincent in Brixton, which he directed in 2002. Vincent in Brixton was an account of the early life of Vincent van Gogh, based on the little that is known of his stay in London where he worked for an art dealer. The piece used informed guesswork to hypothesise a love affair that may have pushed him in the direction of his true calling. Eyre reveals that The Reporter is similarly speculative and once again examines existence "through the prism of somebody who is obviously acutely depressed. Mossman has doubts about the worth of what he is doing and, in a very light-footed way, the play asks what's it all for? This may sound a bit gloomy but actually I'd say that it's an assertive piece about the corollary - the reasons for living rather than the reasons dying." And in the necessary inconclusiveness of Mossman's investigations, the play intimates that we remain mysteries even to ourselves.

I remark that his decade of post-National freelance life has coincided with the Blair era and the plunge from hope to deepening disillusion. Eyre had had an early encounter with Tony. "I did a production of The Crucible in Edinburgh and a week later I went to talk to the boys at Fettes, where there was a bright sixth-former, T Blair. When I met him before the '97 election, he said, 'We've met before. You came to my school and inspired me and made me want to be an actor.'"

Eyre has always been ready to combine his artistic activities with public service. Through sheer pressure of work, though, he was forced to step down from the board of BBC governors in May 2003. A smart move, as it turned out, for it spared him from the aftermath of the highly critical Hutton Report into the "sexed-up" dossier. Published in January 2004, it resulted in the resignation of the chairman, Gavyn Davies, and the director-general, Greg Dyke and reduced Davies's replacement to apologising "unreservedly".

I wondered if Eyre felt that, if he'd still been in place, he could have done anything to prevent this ignominious cave-in to a report widely regarded as a whitewash for Downing Street. "Alastair Campbell bullied and taunted the BBC for months during the Iraq war - letter after letter, e-mail after e-mail of belligerent and unfounded accusations of co-ordinated and systemic bias against the Government. And in some ways, Greg was the mirror image of Campbell - entertaining, intelligent and passionately loyal to his organisation, impetuous, combative and stubborn. But there was a fatal distinction between Dyke and Campbell - a folly with which Gavyn Davies colluded. While he and Greg mirrored the posture of Campbell, they didn't mimic his rationale. Was it naivety or principle that stopped them from acting on the precept that is etched on the soul of every politician and apparatchik: you do whatever you can to stay in office? If I'd still been on the board, I could at least have reminded Greg and Gavyn that these would be Number 10's ground rules."

With frequent collaborator Charles Wood, Eyre has recently completed a screenplay called The Other Man from a short story by Bernard Schlink, which he hopes will go into production later this year. But he also lets slip that he has "the germ of an idea" for an original stage play. His daughter Lucy, who has just published a well-reviewed first novel, If Minds Had Toes, lives in Ethiopia and he plans to use a visit there to develop this notion. So it may not be long before "Richard Eyre: dramatist" is added to all his other categories of accomplishment.