Sir Trevor Nunn has never directed a Shakespeare play with an American theatre company before. Perhaps more shockingly, he has never directed Pericles at all. When it comes to Bard of Avon, there is little else that the former director of the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre has not tried.
If we’re keeping score, Nunn—whose American-based production of Pericles runs at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center, the home of Brooklyn’s Theatre for a New Audience (TFANA), Feb. 14–Mar. 27—has previously helmed 34 of 37 of the Bard’s works. Last fall at London’s Rose Theatre he revived the Wars of the Roses trilogy (Henry VI, Edward IV, and Richard III), originally adapted in 1963 by Peter Hall and John Barton. Perhaps most influential was his 1999 take on The Merchant of Venice, which refashioned the play, popularly thought of as inherently anti-Semitic, in a light that showed Shakespeare condemning the anti-Semitism of his own characters.
“I had seen it many times, and felt there were things being repeated in a traditional way of not facing up to the dialogue that Shakespeare was challenging and confronting his audience with,” said Nunn in an interview last fall, adding that the play stands in stark contrast, for instance, with Christopher Marlowe’s irreducibly anti-Semitic The Jew of Malta. Nunn said he saw Shakespeare’s Merchant as a response to Marlowe, as if to say, “This is absolutely not what we should be accepting.” His take on those two plays, incidentally, mirrors insights TFANA drew from them when they staged both in repertory in 2007.
For his part, Nunn’s TFANA Pericles will bring him close to the canonical finish line: The only Shakespeare left for him will be the obscure King John, which he said hopes to direct this coming spring, and—remarkably—A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Nunn—who also achieved notable commercial success at the helm of Cats, Les Misèrables, and Nicholas Nickleby—sat down on the stage at TFANA’s Polonsky last fall to discuss his favorite playwright.
STUART MILLER: What was the first Shakespeare play you ever saw?
TREVOR NUNN: A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I saw it at school in my hometown of Ipswich. I was completely bowled over by the experience. On one occasion my family went to visit an aunt and I was obsessively, at the age of 10, talking about the show. She disappeared and came back with a book and said, “I want you to have this.” It was The Complete Works of William Shakespeare and it had been in a cupboard for the whole time she possessed it—she had been given it as a prize at Prize Day at school when she was 15 and had never opened it. It was absolutely life-changing.
What was the first Shakespeare play you directed?
I was 17 going on 18 and had gotten into Cambridge, but had to wait for 10 months. I went to the local newspaper and asked if they would print an advertisement for free. It said, “Who wants to be in a youth theatre group?”
Five hundred people turned up. I auditioned and auditioned and created this little theatre company. The first play I did as a director—I thought I’d start small—was… Hamlet. We did it for seven performances. The local reviewer came and said it was an amazement.
Was there a pivotal moment for you in directing Shakespeare?
In 1965 I was directing Henry V with John Barton, starring Ian Holm. It was the moment I witnessed the invention of contemporary Shakespeare acting—just the degree of precise psychological and naturalistic truth Ian was able to find while maintaining the verse form and observing those disciplines.
That led me to create a small theatre, so that in addition to examining the Shakespeare canon through every kind of design approach while reaching out to 1,500 people, I could explore what those plays were when they were just conversational with an audience of 150-200 people and nobody needed to project. The work we did in the small theatre then hugely influenced what we did in the big theater. That all derived from wanting to find a way toward that Ian Holm breakthrough.
Do you consciously try to make your productions different from previous versions you have admired, or do you incorporate what you have seen?
It can be either. Or both. Unquestionably the wonderful things one has seen in previous productions exist as influences: “I mustn’t miss that ingredient, I won’t do it in exactly the same way but I won’t miss out on that perception.” But sometimes one can see a thrilling version and then say, “I woke up the other morning with a totally different idea.”
Was tackling the Wars of the Roses trilogy daunting, especially since you have cited the original 1963 production as having had a huge influence on you?
I thought it was totally brilliant, the most successful approach to those history plays, and I still go to see John Barton and Peter Hall. So I wanted to celebrate Peter and John. The plays are not intimdating, but setting out to celebrate two of your colleagues is daunting, because if you get it wrong you are not celebrating them, you are bringing them down with you.
Given the controversy that arose over your all-white casting in the trilogy, would you have changed that approach, since it took attention away from that celebration of their work?
This is completely nonsensical, I’m afraid. I pretty much started diversity casting in 1973. There was nothing like it. But occasionally you come across a project where you say, “I’m not going to do that this time.” It has to do with the lineage—who is related to who and who might be illegitimate is important throughout the three plays. If you have plays so specifically about the bloodline, it’s sort of perverse not to respond to that in the casting.
You’ve revisited some shows several times. Is it because you have new ideas about them?
I directed Hamlet in 1970, and then in 2004 I went back to it to recapture things I had done as a teenager. That first time, I assumed Hamlet was a university student; it says so on every page. But when I came to do it professionally everybody assumes you ignore those things and that it’s fine to have a 40-year-old actor playing Hamlet because his career has reached his pinnacle. [Nunn’s leading man, Alan Howard, was actually 33 in 1970.] It’s a strange theatre tradition built on the idea that you need a great tragedian to play Hamlet and therefore you see Gertrude near her 60th birthday and the ghost with a big white beard. All of that is nonsensical.
The moment that you say Hamlet is a university student, then Gertrude is 39, Claudius is 42 and Hamlet’s dad was 44 and died inexplicably in his prime. Hamlet discovers this affair while still believing he was part of an incredibly happy family. It derails and deranges him. In 2004, I did it with a boy called Ben Whishaw, who was just 23 and had only recently finished drama school. It was extraordinary.
What are your policies about rearranging or editing the text?
I have no hard-and-fast rules. It’s a delicate balance, a judgment made in each and every circumstance. Shakespeare himself adapted the text from one version to another. If he was in the back of the room he’d be saying, “If it doesn’t work for you then fix it. It’s 400 years later and if that bit of language no longer makes sense, then help it. I want it to get through.”
One thing we have to remind ourselves is that no matter what we do in directing, conceptual, or editing terms, there’s no harm done. The original play is there for the next group to come and do. I think constant variation and new thoughts and new ideas keep the canon alive, and that’s the most important thing—that the wisdom remain alive for future generations.
Why is that important?
It’s contentious, I know, but I would contend that there’s more human wisdom in the collected works of William Shakespeare than there is in the Bible. His starting point is that we are a deeply flawed species. We are capable of being close to the angels and we are capable of being bestial. Too often we are thoughtless and mindless and cruel. All of those things are in us, deep-rooted. He is very clear about the attractiveness of villainy: Othello doesn’t talk to us, Iago does; it’s an extraordinary relationship Shakespeare sets up, where we are complicit. And yet it is within us to reach ever upwards, to discover mercy, to discover forgiveness, to discover generosity, to live in peace.
To direct nearly all 37 of Shakespeare’s plays means doing all the lesser-known works too. How did those happen?
I directed the rarities [at RSC and the National Theatre] because no one else wanted to. I was able to get Peggy Ashcroft for Henry VIII but no one else wanted to direct. For Timon of Athens I did textual work, and I think Shakespeare would have been very glad because its an unfinished text. I did it in modern dress as Shakespeare’s attack on Margaret Thatcher, saying, “This is what happens when you say there’s no society and the only thing that matters is the market.”
With Two Gentleman of Verona, when the actors are in their late 20s, it seems like a terrible bit of playwriting—what do you mean, “I forgive you”? This was Shakespeare writing about completely adolescent behavior; they are kids and they can behave appallingly toward each other and then forgive each other. So I did it with a drama school where most of the cast was 18 years old. It was just extraordinary; there was nothing problematic about the play at all.
How did this production of Pericles come about?
I’ve wanted to do Pericles in New York for a large number of years. I wanted to do something here that is relatively unknown and not at all about English history, a play where there’s absolute permission to be fictional. I’m so excited about working with an American company. I’ve done lots of auditions and the standard of work is just sensational.
After this, you’re almost done.
I’ve still got one rarity left, King John, which I need to do after Pericles. I have managed to set up a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the summer in Ipswich for my 37th and final Shakespeare play. I’m absolutely thrilled. Sentimentally, I am thinking it is a good idea for the wheel to come full circle.