Sir Trevor Nunn: Kiss her? I married my Kate!

Sir Trevor Nunn has always been fascinated by how the musical inspired by Shakespeare's comedy crosses into real life – not least his own

I was 15 when I first saw a production of The Taming of the Shrew, and became idolatrously and hopelessly in love with the vivacious professional actress playing the virago, Katherine. Just four years later, I directed a production of The Shrew at university, and, soon after, my student Katherine was my fiancée – an engagement fated not to last beyond us moving into the real world.

Then, a few years later, The Taming of the Shrew was the first Shakespeare I was given to direct by Peter Hall for the RSC. Perhaps some would say it was by then predictable, but I married my brilliant Kate [Janet Suzman], a year later. So, I suppose I am something of an authority on how onstage life in The Shrew can influence what happens offstage, and vice versa.

But before all this, when I was 13, I went to see a film called Kiss Me Kate. I had already become obsessive about acting in plays, but I emerged from the Ritz Cinema that evening intoxicated with the certainty that the life of the theatre, onstage and off, was the only life I wanted to lead.

The film starred the vocally and physically magnificent Howard Keel, a fitting object of hero worship, and, in one scene, he sang a Petruchio soliloquy from a runway promontory that jutted far out into the midst of the audience. So when, waiting to go up to university, I created a young local theatre company and directed them in Hamlet, I built a runway into the auditorium from which my electrifying young Hamlet delivered all his soliloquies. I have now directed 30 of Shakespeare's plays, and 20 musicals; so directing Kiss Me, Kate, the Shakespeare musical, could be described as inevitable.

Actually though, my route to this moment has been anything but straightforward. I first proposed directing a production of Kiss Me, Kate back in 1977, after I had, somewhat mischievously, made a musical out of Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors, which became something of a cult hit. Alas, the rights turned out to be unavailable, so "The RSC in Cole Porter" had to go on the back burner. Happily, my colleague Adrian Noble eventually did a hugely successful RSC production of the show in 1987.

On two occasions at the National Theatre, I created a single acting company that played both a Shakespeare and a music-theatre classic in repertoire. I have never recognised the existence of any barrier between what is known as "legit" and "musical", and I am in good company. Clearly Shakespeare was increasingly fascinated by the power of music and song, so that his last plays, like The Winter's Tale and The Tempest, repeatedly place music and indeed dance at the centre of the action. So, Kiss Me, Kate was my preferred NT option, when we discovered that Michael Blakemore's hit Broadway production of the show was on its way to London. Besotted with Cole Porter as I was, Anything Goes became my alternative choice, and a very happy choice it was. In addition to confirming my view that Porter is the precursor of Sondheim – a composer/lyricist of stunning dexterity and linguistic wickedness – that show brought me together with choreographer Stephen Mear and musical supremo Gareth Valentine, and we are once again shoulder to shoulder.

The story of how Kiss Me, Kate came to be written is wonderfully convoluted, and yet wholly appropriate to this Pirandellian piece that is fascinated by the shifting interface between art and life, life and art. It was conceived by a producer who was involved when that great husband and wife duo, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, performed The Taming of the Shrew. He was fascinated by their flashes of offstage temperament and began to define the idea of a show about a couple whose relationship was more explosive in life than that between the explosive characters they were playing.

A comedy writer called Bella Spewack developed the idea, but came to realise that she needed her erstwhile writing partner, her ex-husband Sam Spewack, to team up with her again. So they created a fictional famous couple, not unlike the Lunts, but who had divorced, and were only now professionally reuniting to co-star in a musical version of The Taming of the Shrew. When war breaks out between this pair during their first-night performance, the Spewacks have endless fun with real life invading the stage, as the famous actress threatens to leave the show in mid-performance. The situation is close to farcical but it's further complicated by the arrival backstage of two mobsters; an ongoing stand-off between the show's two juveniles; and the arrival backstage of a national hero.

Add to this that there are exchanges of genuine emotional pain, plus the tension of an opening-night performance being assessed by potential Broadway backers. On the subject of pain, it's yet more extraordinary that Cole Porter, who in 1937 suffered a shattering horse-riding accident which crushed both his legs, wrote this dazzlingly inventive and exuberant score when in constant irremediable pain. Porter, who had triumphed with Anything Goes as the world emerged from depression, triumphed again with Kiss Me, Kate as the world emerged from world war. And to complete the cycle of life mimicking art, Sam and Bella Spewack decided to get back together and live happily ever after.

Generations later, I met my boyhood hero Howard Keel when he came to a cast party having seen my production of Oklahoma!. Feet of clay? The opposite. He was delightful, generous, attentive, witty and won the heart of everybody present. I have remembered him, and felt a surge of gratitude to him every day of these rehearsals. Art and life… life and art.

'Kiss Me, Kate', Old Vic, London SE1 (oldvictheatre.com) 20 November to 2 March. Trevor Nunn directs 'Kiss Me, Kate' as part of Chichester Festival Theatre's 50th anniversary season (cft.org.uk) until 1 September

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