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

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’

Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)

comedy

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

film
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment

film
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own