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

Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

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

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
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.

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam