Sir Trevor Nunn believes that observation was the key to Shakespeare’s timeless success
William Shakespeare was a people-watcher. This is the view held by Suffolk-born theatre giant Sir Trevor Nunn, whose production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream has just opened at Ipswich’s New Wolsey Theatre.
If you look at the characters in his plays, then it’s obvious that Shakespeare knew an awful lot about what made people tick. He understood people’s motivations. He shaped his characters by looking at the world around him, He understood the driving forces behind people – he knew all about love, lust, anger and jealousy. But he also recognised ambition, duplicity and the fact that people didn’t always mean what they say. He knew how to leave the truth of a speech left, acknowledged yet unspoken, between the lines.
Speaking to Sir Trevor earlier this week provided me with an eye-opening masterclass on Shakespeare. We spoke about his approach to A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the challenges faced when attempting a new production of such a well known play.
We also talked about why Shakespeare has survived as a popular playwright in way that his talented contemporaries, people like Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson, haven’t.
It’s clear that after a lifetime working in theatre and having been artistic director of both the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre, Sir Trevor knows his subject well and is convinced that The Bard was a true genius.
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“It’s a much abused word but there’s no other way to describe him and the work he created,” Sir Trevor says in a most emphatic manner.
“The meaning of a play can change from age to age even decade to decade, at times year to year, depending on what is happening in the outside world when the play is performed.
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“His plays touch on so many possibilities of human action, human frailty, that different things become important at different times. Scholars now believe that Sir Thomas More is an unfinished play by Shakespeare. Sir Ian McKellen performed a tremendous soliloquy at the recent RSC Shakespeare 400 event in Stratford.
“This speech has More addressing people who are protesting about foreigners and they are saying they should all be banished and you shouldn’t give them any charity. More then says to these people: ‘But imagine what it may be like if, later on, you are washed up on foreign shore and you need help and you are providing help yourself.’ You look at it today and you see that Shakespeare is absolutely writing about the refugee crisis.
“You ask why Shakespeare is better known than either Marlowe or Ben Jonson, and they were both remarkably good writers, but Shakespeare was finding elements of contradiction and complexity in human behaviour that Freud only started exploring 300 years later.
“Shakespeare had psychological insight and I believe he had that because he was a people-watcher. He observed people going about their business. He studied people in their relationships with others and he used those traits in his writing, in his characters.”
Sir Trevor said that this complexity allows him to find a fresh take on a play like A Midsummer Night’s Dream which has been staged thousands of times before.
“You have to concentrate on what is in the play. If you capture the audience’s imagination then their imagination will give life to the language. The audience will contribute to the making of magic.
“I came at it knowing that Shakespeare wrote this play just a few months after finishing Romeo and Juliet, a quite extraordinary period in his life, and the play has several similar themes. One of which is frequently glossed over but I wanted to bring out very clearly. Right at the beginning of the play, a father says to his daughter: ‘I have the absolute right to say who you are going to marry and if you don’t do as I say then I demand that you will be put to death.’ It seems quite extraordinary, but look around and we encounter situations like this when you hear reports of honour killings and I wanted Hermia to be incredibly courageous and not only defy her father but plan her escape knowing that she will never be able to come back to her homeland.
“Therefore as we go into the woods and enter this magical world of fairies what is always present is the bravery of Hermia and the threat of what will happen to her if she is discovered.
“Shakespeare has an amazing ability to write serious comedy. A Midsummer Night’s Dream has acquired a reputation of being a frivolous farce from beginning to end, but it’s simply not the case. Shakespeare can turn on a sixpence and go from extreme comedy to something very serious.
“Now I am responding to all of that by saying: ‘What if all this happens in India during the 1930s, during the last days of the Raj and we have this situation where the English duke is compelled to go with this ancient law which gives a father the absolute right to dispose of his daughter in any manner he chooses.’ The Mechanicals become craftsmen and street-sellers and all the strands of the story work incredibly well.”
Sir Trevor finishes by saying that themes of reconciliation and forgiveness which permeate the end of Romeo and Juliet make a similar appearance in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “It was obviously something that concerned him greatly.”
A Midsummer Night’s Dream runs at The New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich, until July 9.