As a veteran of Shakespeare and musicals, who better to take on one of the great masterpieces of musical theatre than director Trevor Nunn? He talks to Natalie Woolman about his revival of Kiss Me, Kate at Chichester Festival Theatre and his plan to do some productions in regional venues
Trevor Nunn is known for two things – musicals and Shakespeare. So Kiss Me, Kate, the Cole Porter musical about a troupe of actors performing The Taming of Shrew, seems to be a perfect fit for the director. Nunn has known this for many years, but the opportunity has been late coming.
He explains: “I first thought of doing Kiss Me, Kate with the Royal Shakespeare Company because I was very keen that the RSC should do the occasional bit of musical work, and what better than to do the Shakespeare musical? When I first suggested it, the rights were tied up in some way. Several years later that got sorted out and Adrian [Noble] did his wonderful RSC production.
“Then it was done in London and I thought I had probably missed my chance. Then Chichester said, ‘The next musical show that we want to do at Chichester is Kiss Me, Kate, would you do it?’ I thought, if I don’t accept it this time, I will never do it. It was a very happy accident.”
Nunn has past form with Porter. When he was artistic director of the National Theatre, he directed a production of Anything Goes that transferred into the West End and which one reviewer called “a selection box of treats”. Nunn says he views Porter as “a precursor of Sondheim because his lyric skill is so extraordinary”. For the NT production, Nunn worked with choreographer Stephen Mear and musical director Gareth Valentine, and the trio have reunited for Kiss Me, Kate in Chichester. Indeed, he says as soon as he confirmed with the theatre, he got on the phone to secure them.
Given that the show hops between passages of Shakespeare and 20th-century songs and dialogue, I wonder how much stress Nunn has put on the Shakespearean passages?
“Kiss Me, Kate includes a considerable amount of The Taming of the Shrew and I think it’s important that the people who do the Shakespeare sequences know absolutely what they are talking about,” he says.
Nunn adds that any director of Kiss Me, Kate has to make a crucial early decision – whether the show that the actors are performing is essentially brilliant but runs into unexpected difficulties, or is a terrible production from the get-go. He has landed on the latter “so the stakes are very high when everything begins to go wrong on the first night”.
At the moment, the stakes are very high for any production opening at Chichester. Under artistic director Jonathan Church, the venue has had a string of West End hits on its hands including Sweeney Todd, Singin’ in the Rain and Top Girls. Indeed, Kiss Me, Kate secured a run at the Old Vic this autumn before even starting previews in Chichester.
Nunn points out that Laurence Olivier formed the company in Chichester that would later become the National Theatre and so that in its 50-year history “there couldn’t be a higher bar that one has to try and get over in working at Chichester”. But he says that despite the brilliant work that the venue has done for decades, it has only been in the last few years that it has broken into the West End.
Nunn’s catholic taste in his projects is well established – he has directed everything from Les Miserables to Love’s Labour’s Lost, from a new dramatic adaptation of Birdsong to Terence Rattigan’s Flare Path. He says he enjoys working on a range of projects and that this stems from his love of the theatre, which he has been cultivating since the age of eight.
“The first theatre show that I ever went to, when I was eight years old, was a pantomime. The very first thing I heard was an orchestra tuning up and then breaking into the overture, and I was sold. It was the most wonderful thing I had ever heard. I couldn’t believe anything could be so exciting and then, years later, I discovered the works of William Shakespeare,” he says.
Naturally, I wonder if there is any type of production he wouldn’t do. Cabaret? No, he says he loves cabaret, and while he was at Cambridge he directed a cabaret revue with student performers including John Cleese and Tim Brooke-Taylor. After some pushing, Nunn concedes that he finds contemporary opera “daunting”.
“A dissident score is pretty challenging and I don’t feel musically educated enough with such things. But I tried – at Covent Garden, we did a new opera based on Sophie’s Choice and it was absolutely fascinating but I felt a bit out of my depth,” he adds.
The breadth of Nunn’s interests are fitting for an artistic director – he was the longest serving artistic director of the RSC and then spent six years as artistic director of the National. Last year, he took up a year-long position as guest artistic director of the Theatre Royal Haymarket. He describes it as a “delightful” appointment that brought some additional perks to what he had experienced in past directorships.
He explains: “I had the creative decision-making to do but I didn’t have to run the building. Running the RSC, I was having to [oversee] five buildings, and the National is a huge complex. Running those huge organisations 24/7, you are working a 14-hour day always. It wasn’t that extreme at the Haymarket – I didn’t have any of the responsibility for the building and all of those extra things that happen as part of an organisation so it was a very nice appointment.”
The team at the Haymarket has invited Nunn back to do another season and he says it “would be very, very lovely if something like that were able to happen”. In the meantime, he plans to do some productions in regional theatres because he sees funding to regional venues as being one of the biggest threats to the industry at the moment. Apart for the situation in the regions, however, Nunn is sanguine about the state of British theatre.
He says: “George S Kaufman, the brilliant American dramatist of the 1930s, 40s and 50s, once described the theatre as the miraculous invalid. When people said, ‘George, what do you mean?’ he said, ‘Everybody is constantly saying, Oh my God, this invalid is going to die, it can’t possibly survive’. And then, suddenly, this miraculous invalid leaps up out of bed and just doing great, not ill any more.
“Now, that was a good joke back in the 1930s. And the miraculous invalid goes on, despite its ups and downs.”
* Kiss Me, Kate runs at Chichester Festival Theatre until September 1, before transferring to the Old Vic from November 20 to March 2, 2013