The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 25.139 Tuesday, 18 March 2014
Date: March 18, 2014 at 4:02:24 PM EDT
Subject: Trevor Nunn: 'The Bard is more relevant than the Bible’
[Editor’s Note: This is from The Telegraph. –Hardy]
Trevor Nunn: 'The Bard is more relevant than the Bible’ - Telegraph
As he brings two plays to the West End, Sir Trevor Nunn has lost none of his vigour after a life spent shaking up theatre’s establishment
By Elizabeth Grice
8:34PM GMT 16 Mar 2014
It pains him to have to say this, but there is no better time to be doing a play about the English fixation with class. Hardly knowing whether to chuckle or throw up, Sir Trevor Nunn acknowledges that the aristocratic gravel has been beautifully prepared by Julian Fellowes and that a nation in thrall to Downton Abbey is a nation primed for his own latest transfer to the West End: Noël Coward’s satire on the upper classes, Relative Values.
With a metaphorical curl of the lip and a whiff of amusement, he says that the success of Downton, the most popular period television series ever, just goes to show that “nothing whatsoever has changed, despite the number of attempts at socialist revolution to bring about a completely equal world”. The old socialist has had to reconcile himself to the unpalatable truth: “There is an absolute fascination with class. It is as riveting as it is distressing.”
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Apart from a pattable paunch, glimpsed between buttons six and seven on his shirt, the ageing process seems to have passed him by. The denims he has been wearing since about 1961 don’t look in the least incongruous, as they would on most men of 74. In fact, if I mistype him as 47 it seems to make more sense. In some lights, his goatee appears grizzled but his thick, dark hair, also c.1961, is still, improbably, thick and dark. He might be the scruffy boy who has strayed in through the stage door to get autographs.
“I swim my 50 lengths every weekend. I run. I go for very, very long walks. I am keen to stay fit and healthy,” he says. “I hate having birthdays. I’ve decided to count backwards.”
He is of an age and distinction – some say the finest and most versatile theatre director in the world – when it doesn’t seem impertinent to start an autobiography. In fact, he has to speed up. “If I’m not careful, by the time the book comes out, everyone will have forgotten everything I’m talking about.”
He has reached year two of his six-year run as artistic director at the National Theatre, so he has dealt with his precocious 18-year directorship of the Royal Shakespeare Company, with Cats, with his stupendous nine-hour Nicholas Nickleby, his famous Macbeth - and with three actress wives: Janet Suzman, Sharon Lee-Hill and Imogen Stubbs.
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Sir Trevor’s ambition is to direct all the 37 plays. Seven more to go. He walks Shakespeare’s streets, knows a Shakespeare line or verse for every situation and has devoted years of his life to interpreting him. What does this man mean to him? There is a queer pause. Sir Trevor stops rocking from side to side in his chair like a metronome. “Shakespeare is my religion,” he says. “Shakespeare has more wisdom and insight about our lives, about how to live and how not to live, how to forgive and how to understand our fellow creatures, than any religious tract. One hundred times more than the Bible. I’m sorry to say that. But over and over again in the plays there is an understanding of the human condition that doesn’t exist in religious books.”
For this lodestone, he has many people to thank, not least the English teacher at his secondary school, Peter Hewitt, who “made it [reading Shakespeare] a living thing, through anecdote, example and jokes”, and who cast him in school plays. “It was pure idolatry. I worked enormously hard for him. I needed to impress him.” Hewitt went out on a limb to encourage the working-class boy to apply for a scholarship to Cambridge, and persuaded the headmaster to make a subvention from the Poor Boys’ Fund so that he could go to Cambridge for a week to take the exam.
He was already an eager little thesp. His CV actually dates from the age of five, when he was sent among the audience at his school Nativity play to collect money. Because he had to chant: “Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat, please put a penny in the old man’s hat”, he thought he had better try to be an old person. “So I did a doddery movement and a quavery voice, and at the end of the play Mrs Pierrepoint, the teacher, said: 'You are a very good actor.’ I thought that was absolutely overwhelming.”
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“From those early days, I’ve always thought of music as part of theatre and I really don’t think I’m distorting anything when I say so did William Shakespeare. He embraced the power of music in theatre. He was not afflicted by the notion that for people to express themselves in song is some lower form of theatrical life.”
At 13, he went professional. He was so small and emaciated that he was quite believably cast as an 11-year-old boy in Life with Father at his local rep, Ipswich Arts Theatre. His stage father was Paul Eddington, not long out of drama school; Wendy Craig the country cousin. “I was hugely impressionable. It was wildly exciting.”
His own father, Robert, was a carpenter, his mother, Dorothy, a seamstress in a machine shop. “Though my childhood was wonderful and I don’t think of it as deprived in any way, we had no money of any kind. When I started to talk seriously about going into the theatre, my parents were the absolute opposite of the shocked parents who say: 'Get a decent job, like working in a bank.’ They encouraged me. If that’s a route outwards and upwards, they thought, go for it.”
They saw his plays in Stratford-upon-Avon and the Aldwych, at first uneasily because it was all so foreign and they weren’t sure they’d be able to find their seats. Their proudest moment was going to Buckingham Palace when he was awarded the CBE. Sir Trevor says he is uncomfortable about honours but accepted his knighthood because he knew what it would have meant to his parents, who did not live to see it. And because, as theatre people protest all the time, their profession is collaborative. “No one can ever claim in this business that they are solely responsible for something. I never use the title and never require anybody to use it. It would be completely unacceptable to use it in a theatre programme.”
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