Sir Trevor’s dream to stage Shakespeare at the New Wolsey Theatre
- Credit: Archive
Sir Trevor Nunn has revealed he is returning to his home town of Ipswich this summer to direct A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the New Wolsey Theatre.
In an exclusive interview with Arts Editor Andrew Clarke, Sir Trevor talks about his sentimental journey back home to complete a personal mission.
You would have thought that during a long career, which has seen him be artistic director of both The Royal Shakespeare Company and The National Theatre, that Sir Trevor Nunn would have tackled all of Shakespeare’s plays many times over but it seems that it is not the case.
Sir Trevor Nunn has managed to direct 36 of the 37 plays but there has been one major, glaring omission which he is determined to put right.
Speaking during a break in rehearsals for Pericles, which he is directing in New York, Sir Trevor said that it was the realisation of a long-held dream to direct every Shakespeare play and it feels right that he should return home to Ipswich to fit the last piece in his professional puzzle.
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He said: “I have reached a climactic point in my directorial career – that is, by May of this year, I will have done 36 of the 37 plays that Shakespeare wrote. The missing 37th – and people are continually surprised to be told this – is A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
“Well, the first Shakespeare play I ever saw, in my home town of Ipswich, when I was 12 years old, was A Midsummer Night’s Dream. So I thought it would be a wonderfully nostalgic symmetrical (and probably sentimental) thing to do my 37th Shakespeare play where I had seen my first, and that is why I asked the brilliant management at the New Wolsey if I could do the Dream there.”
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Sir Trevor, who was born in Ipswich, the son of an Ipswich cabinet maker, and educated at Northgate Grammar School, 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.
He remembers his first performance on stage as a fledgling actor: “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 had no need of a careers advisor because there was only ever one destination and that was the stage.” He took his first steps as a director at the age of 18 when, with a huge amount of audacity, he decided to tackle Hamlet during his school holidays. The venue he hired to stage his directing debut, in the summer of 1959, is now the New Wolsey’s rehearsal and youth theatre facility The HEG (High Street Exhibition Gallery).
“I had finished school and I had ten months with no plays, no concerts, no acting, no first night nerves, no performances of any kind – there was no way I could endure that, so in my feverish young mind I hatched a plan to form a teenage drama company bringing together actors from all the local amateur companies in the town as well people from the sixth forms to stage a full production of Hamlet.”
Using this as a launch pad he then went to Downing College, Cambridge, only emerging with a 2:2 degree but with a wealth of theatrical experiences.
He took these experiences to the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry where he worked as an assistant director before being selected to take over from fellow Suffolk director Sir Peter Hall at The Royal Shakespeare Company in 1968. He remained artistic director at Stratford until 1986. He then ran The Royal National Theatre from 1997 to 2003.
Over the years he has directed many of Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s musicals like Cats, Sunset Boulevard and Starlight Express as well as West End blockbusters like Les Miserables.
But, Shakespeare remains his first love, and even though he enjoys the challenge of re-interpreting The Bard, he admits that, at times, it does get tougher to find a new slant on a classic play.
“Indeed it gets harder to see Shakespeare plays afresh, particularly during the year of the 400th Anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, when literally hundreds of Shakespeare productions will be taking place. But I don’t believe in originality for the sake of it. I have done many traditional set and costumed productions but also, in my time, I have done productions in updated environments – a totally contemporary Hamlet, a similar Timon of Athens, a First World War Love’s Labour’s Lost, a between the Wars The Merchant of Venice, a Tsarist King Lear to name but a few – but each of these decisions was, I hope, emanating from a desire to make the given play more meaningful, more relevant, more accessible. So I am hoping to do something different in my forthcoming Dream, and all will be revealed on the first night!”
One of the distractions from the Shakespeare anniversary is the on-going debate over whether William Shakespeare, humble actor and son of a glove-maker, was actually the true author of the plays attributed to him. High-profile names such as Mark Rylance and Derek Jacobi believe that someone like the Earl of Oxford is more likely to have penned the tragedy of Macbeth or the stirring history of Henry V.
Mention this and Sir Trevor positively bristles. “The ‘Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare’ campaigns are all, without exception, unspeakable nonsense – like most conspiracy theories in the history of the world. You only have to read one scene by Christopher Marlowe to realise that he wrote in a completely different style from Shakespeare. The Earl of Oxford – who died unfortunately too early to have written the last ten plays (‘oh, he stockpiled them …’) – was an aristocrat who presumably was so ashamed of his connection with theatre that he had to live behind a pseudonym. So why are the plays full of references to every detail of the theatre world – rehearsals, learning lines, staging, good acting, bad acting, scenes, acts, players … every reference bespeaking a man of the theatre through and through?
“But Ben Jonson was clearly a friend of William Shakespeare, “I loved the man … this side idolatry,” he wrote. Asked to write the preface to Shakespeare’s Collected Works, Jonson calls the author “my Shakespeare” and then, for the first time anyone every coined the phrase, “The Swan of Avon.” This Ben Jonson is a writer who constantly railed against hypocrisy. Why would he, of all people, pen a completely phony preface to hide the identity of someone who died twenty years before, because no-one must ever know he was secretly the most famous writer in the country? I think the word is tosh.”
Sir Trevor is also clear why Shakespeare has survived better than any of his contemporaries. “Simply because he just is so much better, so much more detailed, human, insightful and penetrating than all his contemporaries.”
Sir Trevor Nunn’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream will be at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich from June 16 to July 9.