Sir Trevor celebrates milestone birthday

As Ipswich-born Sir Trevor Nunn celebrates his 70th birthday, Arts Editor Andrew Clarke looks at his career and recalls past conversations with the theatrical giant

Andrew Clarke

As Ipswich-born Sir Trevor Nunn celebrates his 70th birthday, Arts Editor Andrew Clarke looks at his career and recalls past conversations with the theatrical giant

When you meet Sir Trevor Nunn the first thing that strikes you about Britain's leading theatre director is how remarkably youthful he looks. This observation becomes even more pertinent when you realise that he has just celebrated his 70th birthday. Sir Trevor, former Ipswich schoolboy, and one of Britain's most successful and influential theatre directors of the last 40 years was last in Ipswich in September attending a performance of It's A Wonderful Life at the New Wolsey Theatre.

Sir Trevor has maintained his links with the town and with East Anglia despite rocketing to fame early in his career - at 28, becoming the youngest artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, taking over from fellow Suffolk-born theatre giant Sir Peter Hall. He laid the foundation stone for the Wolsey Theatre, championed the opening of the Wolsey Studio and premiered his production of The Baker's Wife at the Ipswich theatre in 1989. More recently he has been one of the patrons of the restoration project for the Bury St Edmunds Theatre Royal.

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Over the years he has been responsible for such commercial and critical successes as Cats, Les Miserables, Starlight Express, Miss Saigon, Sunset Boulevard, an eight-and-a-half hour version of Nicholas Nickleby and an unforgettably-macber version of Macbeth.

The son of an Ipswich cabinet maker, Sir Trevor started his theatrical career at the old Arts Theatre, in Tower Street. He learnt his craft alongside such notable rising young stars as Sir Ian McKellen, Sir Ben Kingsley and his future wife Janet Suzman.

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He has said that he knew from a very early age that he knew his life was destined to be in the theatre. Nunn was aged only seven when he told his rather startled parents that when he grew up, he wanted to be an actor. For years it was a family joke and he gently chided them, saying “Stars have got to come from somewhere”.

At 12 years old he was cast in a professional production of Life With Father at the Tower Street theatre. The experience convinced him that his life was destined to be spent in the theatre.

At the age of 17 Nunn founded the Ipswich Drama Group that produced, in his own words, “a pretentious, but thoroughly enjoyable Hamlet”.

Speaking to Sir Trevor in 2004, he said that he retains fond memories of his home town. Educated at Northgate Grammar School, he credits one particular teacher with setting him on the right course. “Everything that I have achieved would never have happened if I hadn't come into contact with a wonderful man called Peter Hewett who taught at Northgate Grammar School. He was a totally inspirational man.

“In the fifth and sixth form, he was my Shakespeare teacher and he had that incredible ability to bring it to life. At the risk of sounding sentimental, I have to say that every Shakespeare production I did at university, then going into the theatre in Coventry and then on to the RSC, I did with him in mind - imagining that he would be coming to see it or criticising it. He provided the ground rules for my outlook on Shakespeare which I then built upon.”

For three years his life revolved around Peter Hewett's influential teachings. “There were no nine-to-five limits on Peter Hewett. He taught us out of school. He would use his own house, a wonderful disused mill out at Kirton, near Felixstowe, where he lived with his wife and two children. Every weekend we would bicycle out there and we would read Shakespeare aloud and join the local drama groups that he ran.”

He said that there was nothing in his background which suggested that he had any future as a director in the theatre. “My father, Robert, was a furniture maker. My mother, Dorothy, was born quite close to Bury St Edmunds in the village of Beyton. She was a village girl. Her family had been country people for generations and therefore had absolutely nothing to do with the metropolis and nothing to do with the performing arts.”

He said there were plenty of family stories however, of him performing for friends and family and being spurred on by the laughter and applause. “It sounds absolutely appalling. I sound like the sort of child whose feet you would want to nail to the floor. Anyway I made it my mission to appear in every school play that it was possible to be in. This went right on until the end of my time at Northgate.”

The East Anglian Daily Times can claim that we helped the fledgling theatrical knight on his way to greatness. “I went into see a reporter at the East Anglian Daily Times and said I want to form a local youth theatre company. I told him I wanted to bring together all those who had worked in school productions and wanted to create something that would have a lot of daring and would galvanise local talent. For some reason this guy decided to write something about it - I fully expected to be thrown out - but there was an enormous reaction to it and I got tons of letters from people wanting to be part of this new theatre group.”

It is typical of Nunn's youthful recklessness that their first effort was a fully staged production of Hamlet. As he recounted the story Nunn roared with laughter at his audacity. “What a modest start. Ah, the confidence of youth. I was only 17 but we managed to get it staged at Ipswich Art Gallery (next to the museum in High Street) and we charged good money for it. It was on for 10 days and it didn't lose money either.”

It is clear that Sir Trevor thoroughly enjoyed his time at Cambridge. Although he was ostensibly there to read English. The fact hat he managed to direct 16 productions during his three years there means that most of his time was spent in the theatre rather than in lecture rooms. But, it was the meeting of like-minded souls which really inspired him. The list of his contemporaries at Cambridge reads like a who's who of modern British theatre. Among those who were sharing the rehearsal rooms with him were: Ian Mckellen, Derek Jacobi, John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Tim Brooke Taylor and Miriam Margoyles, with Bill Oddie, Graham Garden, Richard Stilgoe and “a boy called Richard Eyre along with Michael Apted and Stephen Frears.”

After leaving Cambridge, Nunn landed a job at Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, as an assistant director. After directing nine plays, he was promoted to resident director and then after seven more productions, Sir Peter Hall offered him the job of assistant director at the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Two years later, Sir Peter announced he was leaving and named Nunn as his replacement, astonishing the theatre establishment. Their fears seemed justified when Sir Trevor struggled for 18 months, collecting one bad review after another. But he turned the corner with The Revenger's Tragedy and became the company's new wonder boy.

Although he has been seen as a traditionalist he has never been afraid to do something different with well-loved texts. Seen in that light he is regarded as something of a radical by some of the more conservative sections of the nation's theatre goers. He directed Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors as a Broadway musical, staged a musical version of Around The World In 80 Days and produced an almost musical version of the Dylan Thomas classic Under Milk Wood. He also put together the first all-black cast for Gershwin's folk opera Porgy and Bess and transferred his leading man Willard White into Othello.

Sir Trevor has always had a talent for making artistic theatre a commercial success. This theatrical alchemy has landed him in hot water on numerous occasions with the more elitist critics, who have regularly accused him of dumbing down high culture. In fact, his appointments at the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre were greeted with equal gasps of horror by these self-appointed guardians of artistic excellence - even though the appointments were

28 years apart.

Even though his tenure at the Royal National Theatre had many notable successes, it is clear that Sir Trevor treasures the memory of his time at Stratford Upon Avon.

“I had the most fantastic time at Stratford. I was there for 21 years and ran it for 18 years.”

It was during his time with the RSC that Nunn established his eclectic taste in drama - something for which he makes no apology. He loves Shakespeare with a passion and yet he is a champion for new writing and adores directing musicals. He is a hard man to pin down. Yet if you try and challenge him on this, his feathers get slightly ruffled. “I've always loved doing Shakespeare, doing Ibsen, doing new plays, doing musicals and operas. I love working in film and on television. Variety really is the spice of life. One thing lends nutrition to another.

“This all comes from my background in Ipswich. The very first theatre I ever went to was the old Ipswich Hippodrome in Fore Street and it was the pantomime. We went because my sister won a colouring competition and the prize was tickets to see Goldilocks. Then when I was 13 I got a job at the Ipswich Arts Theatre playing a boy of 11, so I got the chance to work with a company of professional actors. That confirmed my view that I wanted to work in the theatre.

My stage father was Paul Eddington and the girl next door was Wendy Craig.

“I think it is a very phoney, false, very modern distinction that has been made between legitimate theatre and musical theatre as if musical theatre is a lower form of theatrical life. I don't think it is. There was never this distinction at the end of the 19th century when the Savoy Operas were part of the theatre scene and I don't think Shakespeare made any such distinction when he wrote The Tempest and put a host of songs in and treated it as a masque, full of spectacle.”

Nunn is reassuringly a man of the people and is keen that theatre should continue to be a place where everyone should feel welcome and if that offends the theatre snobs then he believes that it is their problem.

Sir Trevor's next project is to get his long-awaited autobiography in order. He says the book is started but is not yet complete.

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