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Breakfast with Frost
Sir Trevor Nunn
Collaborates with Andrew Lloyd Webber on The Woman in White
Interview with Sir Trevor Nunn May 4th, 2003

Please note "BBC Breakfast with Frost" must be credited if any part of this transcript is used

DAVID FROST: Now tonight in London, at the Royal Albert Hall, there's a glittering event to celebrate the theatrical successes of Sir Trevor Nunn. After more than 30 years at the helm of institutions like the Royal Shakespeare Company, and more recently the National Theatre, he's arguably Britain's most successful director and producer, with an outstanding range of hits to his credit. Some of his Shakespeare productions have proved controversial, critics have sometimes questioned whether his popular touch comes with a cost, well we can touch on those issues in a moment with Trevor but after this taste of some of the star-studded productions that he has staged.


DAVID FROST: Ra, ra, ra - a musical play on there for Trevor. Imogen, as she was going out, said I could ask you about that story about when people are 50 they should wear looser jeans, and I was saying you're as young as you feel, but you, you've stayed youthful a year or two past 50.

TREVOR NUNN: Yes, a year or two David - well we were students together.


TREVOR NUNN: We were more or less at the same time. I remember you very well in those years at Cambridge.

DAVID FROST: And you've stayed with the spirit of youth. Now the thing, of all the - I mean the musical things get mentioned all the while because they've been so memorable and so good, but as you pointed out at the National Theatre you also put on, you didn't didn't direct all 60 but you put on 60 new plays as well.

TREVOR NUNN: I did 60 new plays during the five years that I was at the National, which was something of an exponential change. You know, we really swung the pendulum towards new work, and of course we did 40 or so other productions of classic plays, and I did six musicals, but the story, the story was that National did nothing but musicals. And indeed most of them were done at Christmas time. You know, at that highly seasonal moment where theatres ought to give their audiences something of pure enjoyment rather than something that is trying to get them to understand the further reaches of German expressionism.

DAVID FROST: What, of the more serious works, you picked out particularly the Tom Stoppard.

TREVOR NUNN: Well it was a fantastic privilege for me to have Tom Stoppard in the rehearsal room for something like 14 weeks. Fourteen weeks in order to do three full length plays - it's an astonishing project from Tom. And I - of course I'm biased, I would say that wouldn't I, but I, I think that he's written one of the works of the decade. I think that it will survive. I hope that other companies manage to do it - I hear there's a possibility that it will be done in America. But what was disappointing was that many of the press who had been saying that the National Theatre ought to be, ought to be more challenging intellectually, found Tom's work too intellectually challenging for them. Now, in contrast, audiences didn't. I mean audiences had the most wonderful ... found it fantastically funny and, and very, very moving. But to have Tom Stoppard in your rehearsal room for 14 weeks, that's, that's pretty special.

DAVID FROST: What would you say is the most important quality that a director needs and the most important quality that an actor needs?

TREVOR NUNN: I suppose a director is many things - a mixture of teacher and psychiatrist - but I think the director also needs to be able to learn. I, I, in the rehearsal process, I love the idea that if I've got a cast of 30, that there are 30 possible ideas and possible suggestions for the way forward, rather than an audience of 30 who will listen to one dictatorial voice. That said, of course, it's terribly important that the chairmanship of the director is such that accurate and good and germane choices are made. As far as an actor is concerned, God an actor's got to have very, very thick skin, particularly these days, and an actor needs to have tremendous flexibility. You know, the world has changed so much since we first met that actors now expect, hope to make a movie every year and appear on television several times and do the theatre, large scale theatre, small scale theatre and so on, and of course that's entirely appropriate, it's very exciting that it's possible in this country, but they really do need great flexibility and skill and discipline.

DAVID FROST: When you mention about when we first met at Cambridge and so on, if you compared the British theatre of that era with the British theatre of today, is it unmixedly better, or not?

TREVOR NUNN: Well of course great acting doesn't change. It's very, very rare, and there were great actors then - I remember the first time I saw Peggy Ashcroft and realised what great acting was, why the term existed - and, and shortly after that I remember seeing an extraordinary performance by Ralph Richardson and understanding what a sort of amazing conduit he was for our emotions. But, great actors do turn up in every generation. I mean I had the extraordinary experience of working with Ian McKellen and Judi Dench on Macbeth and they redefined the play - or I suppose I should say we managed to redefine the play between us - but it was, it was in a small theatre, a poor theatre, and all of the attention was on the acting and, and greatness occurred. Now, you know, we have vastly much more technology, sometimes technology means that doing things takes longer, but yes, our horizons have changed and I think we're more daring and I think audiences require more daring and, and more spectacle for the high price of the theatre ticket.

DAVID FROST: Right so, yes that's the comparison between the two. And you're going to go on, you left the National Theatre in the black, which was an achievement -


DAVID FROST: Incidentally, do you think we're mean on subsidies for the arts in this country, or generous?

TREVOR NUNN: No - it - things have got better over the last few years but we're still not back on a even keel from the position we were when that stand-still funding was imposed by Margaret Thatcher. We still haven't caught up and of course we're nowhere near the level of subsidy that is invested in France, in Germany - equivalent countries - so it is extraordinary but people on the whole continue to say that the greatest innovations and some of the greatest achievements in theatre happen in this country. You say after the resources of the National, what am I going onto next - I'm actually working in another small theatre, poor theatre, I'm doing the opening production of the newly constituted Almeida Theatre, I'm doing a play called The Lady from the Sea - which is a very rare Ibsen play, almost never done.

DAVID FROST: And you're renewing your old association and working with Andrew - Andrew Lloyd Webber again, on The Woman in White.

TREVOR NUNN: I am! He's, he's hard at work creating a new show and it is extraordinary that, it's a wonderful experience to, to sit by and be present as this amazing outpouring of new music and invention comes from him. I mean he is the most prolific and the most successful of music theatre composers, over the last few generations, and it's extraordinary to see that that hasn't stopped. He's tough on himself, he's immensely inventive, reaching for new forms and new ideas, so it's a very stimulating experience to be with him at the moment and we do a workshop of that this summer and then we do it in the theatre proper next year.

DAVID FROST: Oh that's great - that's very exciting indeed.

TREVOR NUNN: That's called The Woman in White.

DAVID FROST: The Woman in White.

TREVOR NUNN: Based on the novel by Wilkie Collins.

DAVID FROST: That's absolutely right. But as you look back at your overall career so far - so far - what is the personal highlight that you come back to?

TREVOR NUNN: I've had - I've had really amazingly enjoyable times doing the big musical works, just recently - Anything Goes - I had the most wonderful time, and the good news is that that is coming back and we're going to be able to do it in the West End. But when I compare all of those things with the experience of doing Nicholas Nickleby for the RSC at the Aldwych, Nicholas Nickleby comes out the winner. Why? Because it was, it was an absolute make or break project. The RSC was in bad financial trouble. I was able to do one show and one show only, in order to keep an entire company together and if it didn't work then the Aldwych Theatre was going to close. And we did this adaptation of an entire Dickens novel - it took eight and a half hours. It took us about four and a half months to rehearse it, and it was just one of those things. Your dear friend, Bernard Levin, wrote a review of it and, and praised it to the skies and sort of turned round an adverse critical reaction and it then won every theatre award in this country and every theatre award in America and it went on for three years.

DAVID FROST: Well that's a very good selection. Bless you for being with us Trevor. But since we started with musicals we should end with straight plays and let's play you out, as they say, with something from Twelfth Night. This was Mel Smith, Ben Kingsley and Richard E Grant, I think, but underlying the straight play part of it all.

TREVOR NUNN: Imogen Stubbs, I do believe.

DAVID FROST: Here it is.


DAVID FROST: There it is, Trevor Nunn. Thanks Trevor.


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