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Sir Trevor Nunn interview: ‘I want to stage every Shakespeare play before I retire’

Between a ‘thrilling’ teaching role and  bringing ‘Fatal Attraction’ to the West End, Sir Trevor Nunn tells Nick Clark he still harbours a long-held dream
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As the latest addition to the celebrity lecturing line-up at A C Grayling’s controversial private educational institution the New College of the Humanities (NCH), Sir Trevor Nunn found the style of teaching took him back two decades to one of his most acclaimed productions.

The 74-year-old, who says he plans to stage every Shakespeare play “before I hang up my boots,” has headed the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) and the National Theatre and directed a string of hits in the West End. Now he has been appointed visiting professor of drama at the NCH, which opened its doors in September 2012.

Among his most memorable productions was the first ever staging of Arcadia, written by Sir Tom Stoppard, at the National Theatre in 1993. He sees the New College as a “thrilling” reflection of the style of education provided by the 19th-century tutor Septimus Hodge, played by Rufus Sewell in that production.

“In those days, the tutor assumes he’ll teach his young charge everything, from poetry to scientific disciplines,” he says. “Tom makes the point that now everyone is compartmentalised. The arts don’t speak to the sciences and vice versa. The New College is Septimus’s ideal; everyone gets to imbibe some part of other disciplines.”

Sir Trevor was made artistic director of the RSC at the age of 28 and his teachings at the college have so far concentrated on the Bard. “If I have any validity as a visiting professor it has to be about theatre and if it has any academic validity it has to involve Shakespeare often,” he says.

In the year that the 450th anniversary of the Shakespeare’s birth is celebrated, he believes that the students of today are lucky that teaching and access to the playwright’s work has never been better. “The teaching of Shakespeare has improved exponentially over the time I’ve experienced educational work in theatre,” he says, adding that he was very lucky his first English lesson at grammar school was with a Shakespeare teacher “who totally changed my life”.

He continues: “Shakespeare is in a good place. The amount of his work in London over the past 20 years has been absolutely extraordinary. The National regularly does his work, The Globe has more influence and there are more works by smaller theatres and also in the West End.” Jude Law is currently starring in Henry V at the Noël Coward Theatre, which recently put on a major production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream starring Sheridan Smith as Titania and David Walliams as Bottom.

Sir Trevor himself has put on 30 of the 37 Shakespeare works. “There’s only seven left and I want to do them all before I hang up my boots,” he says. “I know exactly how I would do them and because there’s only a few left I think about them from time to time. I could start rehearsing any of them tomorrow.”

Over the next two years, between the anniversary of the Bard’s birth and the 400th anniversary of his death in 2016, Sir Trevor plans to do Pericles and The Two Gentlemen of Verona. “I’m very keen to do a particular production of King John but what I’ve got to try and do is set up the War of the Roses sequence.”

At the moment though, he is preoccupied with a very different task. Last week marked his first days of rehearsals for a new West End show, a stage adaptation of Fatal Attraction starring Natasha McElhone. He describes his lead as a “hugely intelligent actress”, adding: “She will make a good director.” Helpfully, the rehearsals are just minutes away from the NCH.

Sir Trevor was recruited to the £18,000-a-year university after lecturing at St Catherine’s College in Oxford, where he met Dr Catherine Brown, who subsequently moved to Grayling’s institution. At a party, the founder persuaded him to join, too.

“There was altogether a different atmosphere from anything I had encountered before in a university or further education establishment,” he says. “Everything was very friendly, free and easy. Lecturers do their stuff in a small space; it’s like intimate theatre in a way. It’s the difference between a big West End theatre and the Donmar Warehouse.”

Sir Trevor says he has taken the opportunity to listen to some of the other celebrity lecturers, including Richard Dawkins – “it was very biological, rather than inflammatory atheistic” – as well as philosopher Daniel Dennett on cultural evolution and Lawrence Krauss, who has been dubbed the “Woody Allen of physics” because of his humorous presentation style.

“Everyone is encouraged to go to lectures outside their discipline,” he says. “The more you’re around here, the more you realise Grayling’s insight is a thrilling one.”

Last year was also significant for Sir Trevor as the National Theatre turned 50, with a year of celebrations including a gala evening reprising excerpts of some of the most memorable performances. Sir Trevor was artistic director during a relatively turbulent time between 1997 and 2003, bringing a populist style to its productions.

“The National Theatre at the moment is at the strongest most successful point that it has ever been,” he says. “It’s great to have the 50 year celebration when it’s absolutely at the top of the game. The range of work is extraordinary.”

He is a huge admirer of the work of his successor Sir Nicholas Hytner, and has also backed Rufus Norris, who was announced last year as the new director from 2015. Sir Nicholas has instituted a string of successful initiatives, some of which Sir Trevor says he attempted during his time, but failed to implement.

“The biggest thing to happen under Nick was the £10 season, which really opened up the building, it opened up the theatre,” he says. “I could never get the tickets down to that price. The fundraising techniques that are now in place are sensational, way in advance of what people could achieve when I or any of my predecessors were there.”

The National also makes money by investing in its own shows that then transfer successfully to the West End, such as War Horse and One Man, Two Guvnors. “When shows hit huge profits the money goes back into the pockets of the National. Well, that came up during my time and I thought it was such a wonderful idea,” Sir Trevor says. “It was to be called National Angels. It wasn’t allowed by the Arts Council and the governing body. Now it’s happened it’s transformed everything.”

But despite the strength of the National and London’s theatre culture, Sir Trevor fears for regional theatre, which feeds the blockbuster shows in the capital.

“The terrible cuts of a few years ago have had a savage effect in the regions,” he says. “It’s a changing world as drama students leave their drama schools thinking ‘I have to get into television and I have to get into film,’ because there are fewer and fewer opportunities in theatre.”

All the world’s a stage: Director’s passions

Where was the last place  you went for dinner? 

A superb Indian restaurant in  Hammersmith called Potli

What was the last album you bought/listened to?

The great songs of Pete Seeger

What was the last book you read?

‘A Possible Life’, Sebastian Faulks

What was the last event you  attended?

The performance of ‘Oh, the  Humanity’ – a play by students at the New College of the Humanities

What was the last sporting  event you attended?

The pool grudge match between my son and his friend... a real nail-biter

What was the last film you saw?

‘American Hustle’