Mark Shenton Meets: Trevor Nunn, an unstoppable life force in theatre

Trevor Nunn

Trevor Nunn has been one of the dominant forces in British theatre for over half a century now. He became the artistic director of the RSC 51 years ago, when he was just 28 years old, a post he held until 1986; he also held a one-term tenure as artistic director at the National, in-between Richard Eyre and Nicholas Hytner, between 1997 and 2003. He became one of the wealthiest (and most prolific) directors in English theatre history as the director of such global blockbuster musicals as Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats and Starlight Express, as well as co-director of the original production of Les Miserables, which he first launched the English language version of at the RSC's Barbican Theatre in 1985.

At 79, he could be forgiven for wanting to put his feet up; but he exclaims, as we sit down in the Ivy Club to chat over coffee (and a single chocolate biscuit for him): "I don't want to slow down, good Lord!"

He's still restless and questing, forever keen to make new discoveries and embark on new adventures. To that end, the current London premiere of a long-lost play by Harley Granville Barker called Agnes Colander fits right in. And no, it isn't being staged with one of the major companies, but in one of the very smallest of all central London theatres, the independent Jermyn Street Theatre (which seats just 70 people), just off Piccadilly Circus.

"I absolutely love doing things big and I absolutely love doing things small. I opened The Other Place because we didn't have a small theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon when I was at the RSC; or in London, so we found this warehouse called the Donmar, and opened that."  

When he later came to run the National, he similarly relished the chance to work on different scales: "I'd always want to work in the Olivier so long as I could work in Cottesloe immediately after."  He also oversaw the conversion of the Lyttelton circle foyer space into a small temporary studio theatre, and overhauling the Lyttelton into a smaller, one-level theatre where the stalls met the circle.

His current assignment at Jermyn Street is not the first time he's worked there.  In 2012, he staged Samuel Beckett's All That Fall there, and he says today, "what a fantastic privilege it was to work there with Eileen Atkins and Michael Gambon." He goes on, "I'm very, very delighted to be going back to Jermyn Street in all sorts of ways. I suppose most of all because [artistic director] Tom Littler has worked on a number of productions with me, and I got very attached to him. So I was really, really delighted when he took over there – it’s such a good thing for him and indeed the London scene."

Nunn's rediscovery of this 'lost' Granville Barker play is, in his own words, "an amazing story. I've been a passionate fan of Granville Barker's for decades. In 1975, the RSC did The Marrying of Ann Leete, which is almost never done, which had Mia Farrow in the title part. It was the very first thing that he wrote, and it was extremely unconventional - he was writing a comedy of manners about a girl from aristocratic family that doesn't go through with the marriage that's been arranged for her because she's falling in love with the gardener, who she marries instead!

"Eighteen months later, he wrote this play Agnes Colander, but he put in it in the drawer and decided he shouldn't put it on or publish it, as he clearly would not have been able to get it licensed by the Lord Chamberlain. He put it away but he referred to it in letters, and my friend of many decades, Richard Nelson - who did many plays for us at the RSC - is an obsessive fan of Granville Barker's, to the point where he wanted to write a play about him."

He continues, "In researching him, he came across correspondence that mentions this play - and in collaboration with another friend of mine and close friend of Richard’s, Colin Chambers [who was the dramaturg at the RSC when Nelson worked there], they launched a search to find the missing play. And they tracked it down to a typescript in the British Library! So what we did was the world premiere of a play written in 1900, about a woman who walks out of her marriage because she can't bear it any longer. She has no right to divorce or property rights, but sets up as an artist to work in a garret studio."

The play explores her relationships with two men that follow, as she tries to reconcile her spiritual and sexual needs. Nunn first premiered it at Bath's Ustinov Theatre last March, and is delighted now to be bringing it to an intimate London theatre. "It's an extraordinarily conversational play and to be in a small space encourages you to be conversational and not to have to project."

And he adds: "Richard and I agreed we wanted it done small - to expose this play in large proscenium house would be completely against its interests. We did it out of town last year so we could work on it gradually, and we had a very good time in Bath. All but one of the cast have been able to come with us now."

Nunn has also got another smaller-scale revival transferring to the West End next month, when his Menier Chocolate Factory production of Fiddler on the Roof moves to the Playhouse Theatre.

"I've been very, very lucky with people I've met in this business over the years, but one of the luckiest was to become friends with Joseph Stein, who wrote Fiddler on the Roof." They worked together on the British premiere of a fast flop The Baker's Wife, that has a score by Stephen Schwartz which had closed on the road during its 1970s Broadway try-out. "Occasionally he would talk about Fiddler, and would murmur very quietly that he wanted it to have the same reality as the Sholem Aleichem stories it is based on."

Nunn is also co-director of the West End's longest-running musical in history, Les Miserables - now in its 34th year. It's a show that he first co-directed with John Caird for the RSC, then based at the Barbican, back in 1985. It subsequently transferred to the West End, where it has been ever since; and went on to conquer the globe, including award-winning runs on Broadway. Today, there's a creative controversy over producer Cameron Mackintosh's announcement to now replace that original production with a revised, more streamlined touring version that was originally staged in 2009.
 

Nunn refuses to comment publicly on his feelings about this, though he's keen to point out his and Caird's own contributions to the show's success. "I am absolutely able to comment that what I was given was a tape of the concert presentation done in a sports stadium in Paris, and that it began about a third of the way through the story - and it didn't include the most important incident in the entire story where Valjean meets the Bishop of Digne, which changes him from someone bestial into someone who understands generosity and forgiveness. On the tape I received, the show ended on the barricade; there wasn't Empty Chairs, Empty Tables and no Stars, either."

He's earned a long and handsome royalty for the last 34 years, but it seems his and Caird's creative contributions will no longer be rewarded. And he talks about "a fascinating stand-off in New York" that has just occurred between Equity and the Broadway League [that represents producers and theatre owners] about how "the original actors who work on the creation of a show ought in one way or another to be involved in its profitability."

That's the business of show; and though Nunn is also a master showman. He also has a number of other projects brewing: a brand-new Stephen Schwartz musical, now called Making Magic, about Mozart composing "The Magic Flute", that was premiered in Vienna in 2017, is now eyeing a West End or Broadway production; and a new musical version of "The Third Man", scored by George Fenton, with lyrics by Don Black and book by Christopher Hampton. He's an unstoppable life force in theatre.
 

Photo credit: Sean James Cameron (Flickr)

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