Richard Eyre: A breath of fresh Eyre

Richard Eyre was artistic director at the National Theatre during its 'golden age'. Now that he's directing a new play there, Paul Taylor asks him how it feels to be back
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Five years ago, Richard Eyre relinquished the reins as artistic director of the National Theatre. Now he's back in his old paddock, rehearsingVincent in Brixton, a new play by Nicholas Wright about Van Gogh's little-known but formative experiences in London. Eyre meets me at the stage door, and we are taken to do this interview in the PR office. The head of press saysshe is popping off to do other jobs, but she'll be back. We are not to think that we've been abandoned.

This reassurance strikes a slightly ironic note, since Eyre must know his way round these corridors blindfold, having run the place for a decade – 1988 to 1997, generally regarded as one of the institution's golden eras. In those years, he launched landmark new plays that helped to define the times (Tony Kushner's Angels in America, the David Hare Trilogy). With his hat on as (in Frank Rich's phrase) "the most successful and versatile producer in the English-speaking theatre", he provided a flock of brilliant young directors (Deborah Warner, Declan Donnellan, the National's current artistic director designate, Nicholas Hytner et al) with an environment in which they could soar. And he established rich creative relationships with the type of theatrical auteur previously under-represented at the National (Simon McBurney of Theatre de Complicite and the Canadian Robert Lepage). But what's it like, I wondered, for Eyre to return as a mere employee? Is itakin to returning to a former family home now under an alien owner-occupier?

"Yes, it is a bit like that," he agrees, with a wry laugh. "The place looks more or less the same, but it's papered with, on the whole, different faces. All theatres change rapidly. Theatre isunsentimental, for all that it's supposed to be a pool of wishy-washy emotion, with people swimming in nostalgia. In fact, it's terribly hard-nosed. Show finishes; show's out. One set is cleared; the next one's in. And I rather like that."

Is there, I ask, an agreed protocol about the polite point at which the preceding artistic director is permitted to do a production within the next regime? His own predecessor, Peter Hall, reappeared towards the end of Eyre's tenure with a production of the Oedipus plays. Now Eyre pops back in the penultimate year of the Trevor Nunn dispensation. "I think there should be continuity," he argues. "People with an interest in these things long with envious schadenfreude for myself or Peter to jump up and say that we want nothing to do with Trevor Nunn. But it just doesn't work like that."

Eyre, a "radical anarchist" son of the upper-middle classes, is an attractive mix of diffidence and drive, of a strong sense of duty and a tendency towards melancholy. He touches and inspires you with an image of troubled integrity. When he first took over the National, he was prepared to confess to vulnerability (he once remarked that a memoir of this time in his life would have to be called "Crying On the Way to Work"). And now, when he recalls what it was like to give up that post, he doesn't try to disguise the dismaying disorientation of suddenly finding himself without an office or secretaries to keep his diary, or the power to do virtually what he pleased on three of the prime stages in the world.

In fact, he initially threw himself into the gruelling, thankless task of preparing for the Culture Secretary a report on the state of our lyric theatres, with particular reference to the administrative nightmare of Covent Garden. "I sort of fell into that, partly because there was a bit of a vacuum. I'd had a great deal to do and now I was having to invent the work I did and describe my life differently. So I was 'strong-armed' into it – actually no, that's an exaggeration, I was 'soft-armed', flattered to be told I was the only man who could do it and that the nation waited on my word."

Eyre can be waspish at times and I remind him that, in response to journalists who were badgering him about the slight delay in the publication of this report, he quipped that "never having directed an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, I have to earn a living, which does rather interfere with voluntary work". He's noted for his excellent production of Guys and Dolls at the National. Has he never been tempted to make himself a millionaire by directing a modern West End musical, as some of his colleagues and protégés have done?

"Oh, sure. I was asked to do Les Misérables. It had been on in Paris and Cameron [Mackintosh] sent me a tape. And I just didn't think that I could get it up for it. I'm a great fan of Victor Hugo," he laughs, "but I didn't warm to the music. Thank God somebody [Trevor Nunn] staged it who did, because it's underwritten the RSC for 20 years." He would never attribute bad faith to any of the directors who take the Lloyd Webber or Boublil/Schönberg shilling. What mystifies him is the good faith they manage to muster. "People read a Jeffrey Archer novel and think 'anybody could write like that' – yet, oddly, they can't. You can't create bad art cynically. And yes, I guess that some small part of me is envious."

The play with which he is making his National comeback is by Nicholas Wright, his co-author on Changing Stages, the book that accompanied his TV series about 20th-century theatre history. When he was 20, Vincent Van Gogh was sent to work in the London branch of Goupil Art Gallery and developed a crushingly unrequited passion for his landlady's daughter. Because the play has several surprises up its sleeve, Eyre is cagey, though he will say that it is "about art and sex" and that it speculates, from fragmentary evidence, that Vincent had a relationship with the landlady herself.

Wright, says the director, is an author who "almost invariably writes from biographical information in order to authenticate his investigation into the issues and topics that have drawn him to the material". Is that not a good description of Eyre's own procedure with Iris Murdoch and Alzheimer's in his award-winning movie, Iris? "Absolutely, yes." The novelist's ordeal lasted two years. Eyre's mother wasted away for over 20 with this terrible illness, as he records in a memoir of his parents, Utopia and Other Places. The US film producer who set the ball rolling thought this made Eyre the ideal co-author/director. I suggest that you could imagine another producer feeling, by contrast, that this personal interest disqualified him. His mother's acute suffering could have prompted him to elicit a more meaningful pattern from the other real-life story than it warrants.

It's evidence of Eyre's fair-mindedness that he is prepared to entertain this as a possibility, while pointing out that "Iris Murdoch" and "John Bayley" become, in a sense, fictional constructs in the film. It worries me that the latter, a critic of great sophistication and insight, simplifies himself in his memoirs. The Murdoch/Bayley marriage was a high-powered intellectual collaboration, not a cosy pre-Alzheimer's idyll involving two dear little river creatures.

But Eyre supports Bayley by reference to his own attempts at family autobiography, particularly in relation to the way he has depicted his womanising, hard-drinking father. In a memoir, he argues, "you cast yourself as a character and the character is partly true and partly a dramatic convenience. The other day, I was disturbed to find I had a desire to make an observation to my father and I could hear clearly what he would have said. After writing Utopia and Other Places, I have occasionally felt... it wouldn't be right to call it shame, but a pang of 'oh, I really simplified that'."

The director was fighting jet-lag when we met, having arrived back that morning from New York, where he had watched again his stirring Broadway production of Arthur Miller's The Crucible. His take on the "timeliness" of this revival is typically alive to ambivalences. On the one hand, the society that gave rise to the Salem witch hunt might seem to reflect the intolerant fundamentalism of the Taliban. On the other, there are "uncomfortable resonances" of George Bush and his "axis of evil" and of a situation where any form of dissent may be construed as unpatriotic opposition. Asked about Tony Blair's habit, these days, of jumping at Bush's bidding, Eyre, a Labour supporter, confesses to bemusement. "I simply don't understand what he's up to in long-term or even short-term strategy. It makes no sense for the Labour Party, nor for the politics of Britain in Europe. I can't comprehend why the position isn't clarified."

We walk out of the National together – me to the Tube, he to his car. And no, you don't get privileged parking space as an ex-artistic director. He seems tired so I don't remind him, as I had planned, of another possibility he floated, when he gave up the top job here: that he might write a novel. We shouldn't give up hope, though. Even though his CV would increasingly do credit to Methuselah, Eyre is a relatively young man. There's still plenty of time for fiction.

'Vincent in Brixton' opens on 1 May at the Cottesloe Theatre (020-7452 3030)