Sir Richard Eyre interview: A National institution

He's as prolific, and opinionated, as he’s ever been. He talks directing, depression and dumbing down

They say that you should never meet your heroes, so for me it is something of a gamble going to interview Sir Richard Eyre. As a teenager in the London suburbs, I was drawn by the irresistible lure of the National, the theatre over which Eyre presided so stylishly and successfully as artistic director between 1988 and 1997, and then was entranced all over again by National Service, the exquisite memoir he wrote about his often challenging time on the South Bank. In person, Eyre, 71, exudes languid erudition, gently peppering his measured conversation with words such as “neolithic” and “archipelago”. He would quite happily, I suspect, never submit to another interview again, but is far too polite to say so.

After decades of high-flying achievement, Eyre is once more riding the crest of a wave: his revival of Ghosts won three Olivier Awards last month and he was named Best Director at the 2013 Evening Standard Theatre Awards. Ghosts was the fifth of six productions that the seemingly indefatigable Eyre directed in an astonishing 13-month burst of creativity between November 2012 and December 2013. In the middle of all this came a revival of Fifties musical The Pajama Game, which opened at Chichester and is now enjoying a West End transfer. This delightful show, which conjures a winning storyline and hatful of hit songs out of the seemingly unpromising material of a labour dispute in a Midwest garment factory, was the first musical that Eyre ever encountered when, aged 12, he was compelled by his sister to listen to her 33rpm soundtrack album.

His passion for musicals comes, he thinks, from a childhood spent listening to show tunes on the radio. “I do have a real love for the classic musical, that period from the 1940-1950s to Cabaret, [which] I suppose, was the last one. That’s an art form in a particular state of grace”, he says. He directed the first ever musical, Guys and Dolls, at the National, to a chorus of initial disquiet that this was rather low fare for such a venue. Could he, I ask, imagine that sort of show being done at his old home now? “My argument was that the remit of the National Theatre is to do world drama and there are perhaps eight great musicals which are up there with the very greatest plays. Most of them have been done by the National, so I don’t think it’s a policy decision so much as a desire to create new musicals and recognising the best of the old ones have already been done.”

A rare musical on which Eyre didn’t fly high was his recent production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Profumo scandal-inspired Stephen Ward, which closed after just three months. He professes himself “terribly disappointed” by this. “I thought there was an extraordinary lack of generosity [in the press] to Andrew, who actually goes out there, when he could sit at home counting his money, puts his head above the parapet with an interesting subject that is actually about something and then is just derided and brushed aside.” When I ask whether all new and original musicals are somehow doomed to fail – a question in the air again last week following the announced closure of the X Factor parody I Can’t Sing – he is brusque. “Post-hoc analysis is fruitless.”

It would be impossible not to talk to Richard Eyre about the National Theatre. He directed Pirandello’s Liolà there last summer and still sees most of the shows. How does he feel when he steps back into its ravening concrete maw? “I always feel slightly… not depressed, but there’s no question I miss it”, he says. “I’ve moved on, but I’d love to move back.” Let’s say there was some sort of mini-crisis and artistic director designate Rufus Norris (who, according to Eyre is “definitely” the right man for the job but “has it all to prove”) couldn’t start for a couple of years: would he step in? “I probably would, yes.” But what about the near breaking-point strain he experienced during his tenure, as detailed in National Service?

“There’s a point [about keeping a journal] I suppose I should have anticipated, and it’s that happiness writes white. You simply don’t write, ‘What a great day, the sun was shining…’ So of course it’s about things that go wrong.” He pauses. “There is a passage where I talk about depression, but what seems obvious now is that it was not caused by the National Theatre, but by the fact that my parents, with whom I had a very difficult relationship, both died within a short time. So the only regret I have about publishing is that the poor old National Theatre gets blamed for my depression and it wasn’t so.”

Has the depression lifted? “I think it’s cyclical and partly endemic. With directing you’re involved for two or three months on a project you feel absolutely passionate about. It opens and the next day, for a director, it’s gone. Even if it’s highly praised, there’s a sense of something having been taken away from you. So there is a sort of manic-depressive cycle.” I should imagine, then, that the more new projects you take on, the less time there is for depression? “Yes, I guess that’s true ... yes”, he says thoughtfully.

It’s fascinating to hear Eyre’s overview on today’s theatrical culture, compared to when he was starting out in the mid-1960s. “I would say it’s more lively, more diverse, more questioning, more self-critical”, he says, but he also feels that, away from the stage, it’s “beyond doubt” that we now live in a dumbed-down age. This arises when we discuss the BBC, of which Eyre is a former governor. I ask whether its hard-hitting strain of contemporary drama, Play for Today, on which he was a producer/director from 1978-1980, could exist in 2014? “You were encouraged to make it controversial. So imagine, if you please, the BBC giving that remit today.” Why couldn’t they? “There’s institutional caution, because they’re not confident enough of their position.”

Indeed, the Beeb is the topic about which this otherwise placid interviewee gets voluble. “It’s brilliant, this new initiative of [Director General] Tony Hall’s about working with the arts, but it’s extraordinary that it’s taken so long. I can’t remember the last time someone before him described what the BBC existed for and saw it as the very centre of British culture in all senses. It declined into this institutional obsession combined with a really perverse comparison and competition with commercial broadcasting.”

From one institution to another, we move on to Westminster: my particular fascination, I say, is how it has almost become a badge of pride for our culture secretaries to know nothing about the arts. Eyre, who fought a number of funding, not to mention ideological, battles with both the Thatcher and Major administrations during his time at the National, sighs. “It’s the populist agenda and they’re [politicians] so frightened of not being elected. I don’t even know if it’s philistinism, because that’s a bit too positive. It’s indifference. It is also part of an over-riding blokeiness. I don’t just mean blokes, but a sort of, ‘Oh, come on, it’s all pretentious’.”

“You’re the reason I do this job”, I say to Richard Eyre as our time together draws to a close and the man who spoke for effusive minutes about the BBC becomes charmingly diffident. “Really? Why?,” he asks. I explain. “Well, I’m very, very pleased”, he says, and with that he is back to rehearsals for The Pajama Game. Perhaps you should meet your heroes after all.

‘The Pajama Game’ is at the Shaftesbury Theatre, London, until 13 Sep (

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