February 21, 2014 11:17 am

The Lucy Kellaway Interview: Sir Trevor Nunn

Trevor Nunn, a giant of English theatre, is currently rehearsing his West End production of the bunny-boiling ‘Fatal Attraction’. The scene is set for an off-stage encounter
Illustration by Luis Grañena of Trevor Nunn©Luis Grañena

Lunchtime. A theatre in London’s West End. Behind a closed door a rehearsal is under way. A piece of A4 paper pinned up outside reads: FATAL ATTRACTION. From within comes the sound of laughter.

Centre stage is a tawdry bar, behind which a machine making turquoise and crimson Slush Puppies churns noisily. At a melamine table sits a middle-aged woman with a cycle helmet at her feet, looking at a notebook. At 1.30pm the rehearsal room door opens and out comes Sir Trevor. Dark hair, goatee beard, wearing jeans, denim shirt and navy velvet jacket. The journalist switches on a small recording device. She scribbles in her notebook: “Still in same uniform. Looks vg for 74.”

Sir Trevor (In deep melodious voice, every syllable enunciated) Hello! I didn’t see you there!

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They shake hands. He places himself at right angles to the journalist and stares straight ahead as if at an audience. She stares at him.

Lucy Kellaway Where’s your packed lunch? They told me you were bringing one to eat in your break.

Out of the pockets of the velvet jacket he produces, with a flourish, a small silver Thermos and half a slice of brown bread, cut very thin, in a plastic bag. He puts them on the table.

Sir T Beef consommé and a lovely piece of bread. I am on the five-and-two. Do you know what I’m talking about? (He pats a belly straining slightly against the denim shirt.)

LK Yes, I do. How’s it going?

Sir T What is attractive about it as a diet is that, you know, it’s promissory. I only have to get through today and then everything is wonderful and normal again. Tomorrow I can drink wine and eat what I like.

LK Will you be bad-tempered and weak by the end of rehearsals today?

Sir T That’s not really for me to say, is it? But, no, I don’t feel that. No. Gimlet-sharp, very active and athletic . . .

His hooded eyes twinkle into the middle distance. The journalist laughs.

The cast of 'Fatal Attraction' (from left) Natascha McElhone, Mark Bazeley and Kristin Davis©Uli Weber

The cast of 'Fatal Attraction' (from left) Natascha McElhone, Mark Bazeley and Kristin Davis

LK Why did you choose to make Fatal Attraction into a play? It’s a film feminists think misogynist claptrap. Even Glenn Close, who starred in it, recently apologised for making the deserted mistress a crazed, vindictive loon.

Sir T (Waving his hands) That was the reputation it garnered – but it was a film that was gigantically successful worldwide. The feminist response was extreme and hostile . . . 

LK Will the play be softer?

Sir T We’ve created something where the sympathy fluctuates between him and her. It is genuinely theatrical, genuinely complex and – I think – genuinely tragic. We have reverted to the original ending, which has an element of Greek tragedy. (Continues talking slowly and at length, as if giving a speech)

LK (Interrupting) But the famous bit when Glenn Close kills the child’s bunny and puts it on the stove to boil – that’s more farce than tragedy. Are you really planning to stage that?

Sir T (Holding up two index fingers and pointing with both like a double accusation) The incident has to be there. If you call something Fatal Attraction but rewrite it to the point of leaving out iconic instances, you betray expectations. People who come to see it will say: that’s not Fatal Attraction.

Trevor Nunn©Catherine Ashmore

LK Why were you laughing in the rehearsal room earlier?

Sir T We’re having a lovely laugh about this terrifyingly dark, tragic project. Funny how that is. We also had a lot of laughs doing King Lear. It’s such a shocking thing to say, isn’t it? But it’s true. The tension is great, you need to displace it with laughter.

LK In Fatal Attraction, the man meets his mistress at work. There can be – it is something I write about at the FT – a strong sexual link between people who work together. But with actors it is so much bigger . . . I mean, um, (Floundering slightly) you’ve fallen for people you’ve worked with . . . ?

Sir T (Wearily) I would say as far as directors are concerned, it is very important to keep private life and professional life separate, and I am certain it would be catastrophic during a rehearsal period or a run of a play for two people working together in a director-actor relationship to become involved.

LK (Puzzled) But surely you’ve directed all your wives? And fallen in love while doing it?

(Aside to audience) First there was Janet Suzman, whom he married in 1969 and who was in many of his productions. Second, Sharon Lee-Hill, the pretty one who played Demeter in Cats, and third, Imogen Stubbs who was Desdemona in the most devastating production of Othello I’ve seen.

Sir T (Speaking extra slowly and carefully) It frequently happens that people who have come to have a very particular estimation of each other further down the track get together, but all trust would be sacrificed if that sort of relationship happened during the rehearsal or performance period.

He pours some of the thin brown liquid into the Thermos cap and takes a sip.

Ah! The beef consommé! Wonderful.

LK (Aside to audience) This isn’t going terribly well. Nunn is one of the giants of English theatre. For 50 years, he has extracted raw emotion from actors in 30 out of Shakespeare’s 37 plays, in musicals and scores of other productions, from the profound to the piffling. He was director of the Royal Shakespeare Company for 18 years, of the National Theatre for six and, more recently, directed a season at the Haymarket. And yet here he is – controlled and aloof, all perfect diction, manners and charm, the archetype of an unreachable thesp. He doesn’t even make eye contact. Must try harder.

(To Sir Trevor) Purists have criticised you for being a great Shakespearean director who devalues the currency by directing musicals. I wonder if the skills you need as a director are the same for both?

Sir T Curiously, they are not as opposite as one might expect. With Shakespeare, you are making people aware of and comfortable with rhythmic and heightened language, timing, phrasing, sensing a beat . . . You’re also making major staging decisions because you’re wanting an audience to see the play in a new way. With a musical project you’re also dealing with rhythmic language – and want your work to feel now. So, actually, there isn’t that much of a disconnection . . . 

LK (Interrupting) One of the most exciting nights of my life was going to see Cats when it opened in 1981. I wept when Elaine Paige sang “Memory” – I hadn’t realised you wrote the lyrics. I listened to it again this morning and can’t get it out of my head. I’ve been belting out – “Touch me! It’s so easy to leave me!” – as I cycled here.

Sir T I’ve just written the history of this. It’s supposed to be part of the book that eventually I’m going to publish . . . (Talks at great length)

LK (Aside to audience) In summary: Sir Trevor sacks two lyricists for straying too far from TS Eliot’s poems and, over one weekend, sits down and writes the words himself.

(To Nunn) Did you end up making more money from the lyrics you wrote that weekend than you’ve made in the rest of your life put together?

Sir T Oh, dear, no . . . (Gives an indulgent little laugh) All I can do to respond and get your imagination going is say it went to number one worldwide.

(Pause) I wrote another lyric in music theatre that gets sung a lot and didn’t take credit for it at the time.

At the Broadway opening of 'Cats' in 1982, left to right, designer John Napier, Nunn, choreographer Gillian Lynne, producer Cameron Mackintosh, and Andrew Lloyd Webber©Alan Davidson

At the Broadway opening of 'Cats' in 1982, from left, designer John Napier, Nunn, choreographer Gillian Lynne, producer Cameron Mackintosh, and Andrew Lloyd Webber

LK What was it?

Sir T “On My Own” in Les Misérables.

LK What did you think of Les Mis the film?

Sir T (Shaking head and putting equal emphasis on each word) I am not going to go there.

LK So, you thought it was sentimental twaddle?

(Aside to audience) I rather liked it.

Sir T I’m not going to go there in any way, shape or form and you must not put those words into my mouth. I’m not being mean-spirited. All I’m saying is that it’s a very different version to the one that became world-famous onstage.

He pops a tiny crumb of bread in his mouth, and sips his soup.

LK Can I ask something different? I’ve been reviewing Amy Chua’s new book [The Triple Package ]. She says people who achieve remarkable success must have three things: a superiority complex, insecurity and self-discipline. Does that describe you?

Sir T (Looks mystified) You’ll have to say them again.

LK Superiority . . . Insecurity . . . Self-discipline . . . 

Sir T (Putting a hand over his face and speaking through it) Gosh. Gosh. I think I can genuinely say I don’t understand the superiority point. Really, genuinely . . . I absolutely don’t recognise that. Right from the very beginning, I’ve been lucky . . . in encountering a schoolteacher when I was 12 years old who was the most marvellous man I’d ever met and changed my life and got me to a major university, and in encountering Peter Hall . . . 

LK What about insecurity?

Sir T Insecurity never goes away. There can never be any resting on laurels.

LK And are you less inclined to rest on laurels because of your background? Because you weren’t born into theatreland . . . You have moved a long way from a working-class home in Ipswich.

Sir T I do feel . . . (The hand goes over his face again) being born into a poor working-class family . . . that those barriers – possibly in my mind, possibly not – do continue to exist.

LK And what about discipline? Everything written about you talks about how hard you work.

Sir T Yes. But if your job is also your hobby, you don’t think about it as work. I would rather be doing this than going on a world cruise.

LK So are you saying that theatre makes life seem feeble by comparison?

Sir T No. I don’t think so because I have a rich and varied family. I love everything about my children and the things I do with them. I am in touch with all of them and very proud of them . . . 

LK (Interrupting again) Do directors get better as they get older – or worse? It seems a job that is kind to older men. Richard Eyre, Peter Hall . . . 

Sir T The directorial process need not involve anything physically athletic. You can sit in a chair. I don’t, but you can sit in a chair in front of your company. It’s swings and roundabouts. Probably when you’re younger, there’s a certain point when you are absolutely in tune with the moment. You are . . . what do we call it? The zeitgeist. I definitely feel a stranger to the computerised age. I operate via my iPhone but am unreliable technologically.

Trevor Nunn with his former wives, Janet Suzman, Imogen Stubbs and Sharon Lee-Hill©Getty/Alan Davidson

Thrice married: (from left) Nunn with his first wife Janet Suzman; with third wife Imogen Stubbs; and second wife Sharon Lee-Hill

LK So if that’s the roundabout, what are the swings?

Sir T That over the years you learn there ultimately is a solution to everything. You mustn’t get drowned by crisis.

LK Does it mean you’re more sanguine when things don’t work out?

Sir T No. You’re not. Of course you’re not.

LK When something like Gone with the Wind [which closed after only 79 performances] doesn’t work out, what story do you tell yourself?

Sir T (Hands over face) I’m probably only prolonging the agony by talking about it but we were very proud of what we did. For as long as it lasted, the company continued to believe in what they were doing and would be absolutely bewildered as relatively small audiences gave it standing ovations.

LK (Glancing at watch – time is running out) Is an interview a performance?

Sir T Oh, heavens . . . I never thought of that before. (Long pause)

Interviews are more like playing cricket. You have to keep playing your defensive shot and every now and again a stray ball comes along that you can hit out of the ground. Is that a performance? I don’t know.

LK You play it like a performance – you seem like an actor.

Sir T I was an actor at Cambridge. I have acted with Derek Jacobi. I have acted with Ian McKellen. I have acted with John Cleese. (Laughs as if at a private joke)

LK You are good at accents – didn’t you start life with a Suffolk one and then go cockney at Cambridge?

Sir T (In Suffolk burr) I did have a bit of an Ipswich accent and then (in cockney accent) I must try a bit of that to see if that works with the girls, and it worked perfectly. So, for a while I became a London boy.

LK The girls have always loved you whatever the accent, though, haven’t they?

Sir T (Laughs and runs his hands through his hair) What are you talking about? No.

LK But you are always being photographed out and about with beautiful women . . . 

Sir T Frequently, it’s something incidental and unserious turned into . . . It’s very surprising to me that anyone would be interested in seeing a photograph of me no matter who I am with . . . 

LK But it is not surprising if the person is Nancy Dell’Olio . . . ?

Sir T (Raising both hands to make a barrier between him and me) That was a very brief interlude, so there we are.

An actress in a green leather jacket climbs the stairs towards the rehearsal room, tossing long blonde hair.

LK Is that . . . ?

Sir T Natascha McElhone . . .

LK In the Glenn Close role?

Sir T She is incredibly talented and what is unusual is that she is phenomenally articulate and when you talk to her . . . it is like discussing something with somebody who presents an arts programme.

LK Is that unusual for an actress?

(Aside to audience) An odd remark, given his most recent wife was the famously intelligent and articulate Imogen Stubbs.

A young man enters, gestures to Sir Trevor: the afternoon rehearsal is about to recommence.

LK You’ve eaten every last bit of your bread, I’m pleased to see.

Sir T Hold on. I’m not sure I did. No. Look. I left a crumb!

He finds one tiny speck of bread left on the table and puts it in his mouth.

LK It was really nice to meet you. And I’m definitely coming to see Fatal Attraction . . . 

Sir T You must write to me afterwards.

LK I will.

Sir Trevor climbs the stairs with the enthusiasm of a younger man, hurrying to get back to work.

The journalist turns the recorder off. Writes in notebook: “Might this work written up as a play?” She gets her coat and leaves.

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Previews of ‘Fatal Attraction’ begin on March 11 at the Theatre Royal Haymarket; trh.co.uk.

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