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Director Trevor Nunn: ‘Being derogatory about other people’s work is very ill-advised’

Trevor Nunn
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As the veteran director returns with the London premiere of lost Harley Granville Barker play Agnes Colander, he tells Tim Bano why its theme of a woman’s right to self-determination remains relevant, and looks back at his years running the UK’s biggest theatre companies, while directing a string of West End hits

Trevor Nunn is not religious, but he’s fond of reciting a prayer written by the late Broadway critic Walter Kerr: “O Lord, give me successes that are not simply successes, but contain just enough quality to let me feel I haven’t wasted my life. Give me long enough runs to pay my bills and then, when I am rich, get me into repertory… Let me be praised, let me be paid, let me be proud… Give me the fortitude to survive my collaborators. But dear Lord… Whatever else you give me out of your unbounded generosity, never, never, never give me a building.”

This is from the man who ran the country’s two flagship theatre buildings, the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company, founded a few more, and put plays on in pretty much all the rest.

Although his days as an artistic director are far behind him, Nunn has never really slowed down. In the past couple of years, his production of Terence Rattigan’s Love in Idleness transferred to the West End from the Menier Chocolate Factory, as did his recent, moving revival of Fiddler on the Roof. He has also directed the entire Shakespearean canon.

Fiddler on the Roof review at Menier Chocolate Factory, London – ‘Trevor Nunn’s tight, trad revival

Now he’s working on the London transfer of a world premiere. The play in question, however, is more than 100 years old: Harley Granville Barker’s Agnes Colander.

Nunn absolutely loves Granville Barker. Maybe it’s the unbroken stream of black coffees talking, but he launches into a garrulous love letter to the pioneering playwright, actor and director. “He was the original Jack Tanner in [George Bernard Shaw’s] Man and Superman,” he says excitedly.

“He was doing rep at the Royal Court, he was the first to strip out all the painted scenery with Shakespeare and do it with a bare stage, he wrote sensational prefaces to five Shakespeare volumes, he was also a campaigner, a pamphleteer, he wrote that what we needed in this country was a national theatre, he campaigned for subsidy for the arts. I mean, come on, it’s absolutely astonishing. Where is the statue of Harley Granville Barker at the National Theatre?”

‘In 1900, there was no possibility that the Lord Chamberlain would give Agnes Colander a licence’

A few years ago, his friend Richard Nelson, who wrote the book for Nunn’s Broadway production of Chess, emailed the director with exciting news. A fellow Granville Barker devotee, Nelson had found a hoard of letters that had been misfiled, untouched, containing reference to a play called Agnes Colander. He teamed up with Colin Chambers, longtime dramaturg at the RSC, to try to locate this undiscovered play. Eventually they tracked down a typed script among some papers at the British Library. It was, the odd typo or unfinished sentence notwithstanding, a complete play.

He adds: “When Richard Nelson dropped me an email and said: ‘You’re not going to believe this but we’ve found a play by Granville Barker, can we talk to you?’ I said you don’t have to talk to me about it, I’m doing it.”

Considering Granville Barker’s celebrity at the time, why did this play end up shoved into a drawer, in toto, unperformed? Nunn is certain. “This was the year 1900. He must have known while he was writing it that there was no possibility that the Lord Chamberlain would give the play a licence.”

It follows Agnes after she has separated from her husband, trying to live independently as an artist, getting into relationships with two different men. “A play about the absence of rights for women? How a woman has no right to divorce when she is in an appallingly, horrifyingly unfulfilling marriage that has been organised for her when she was very young. She knows that she will be rejected by the whole of society. She begins a relationship with another artist and they go to live in sin in France. I mean, what? This would never reach the stage. It’s staggeringly contemporary. It’s endlessly saying a woman has the right to behave in any way she wants in her personal life. That this should be legal.”

The play premiered in Bath last year and is now heading for a London run at the Jermyn Street Theatre. Nunn is clearly excited, but he’s just as devoted to productions he directed two, 10, or even 40 years ago. He fondly remembers working on The Baker’s Wife with Stephen Schwartz in 1989, and creating Chess with Abba’s Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson in 1986, though he didn’t see the recent revival at the Coliseum as it would “break my heart”.

Agnes Colander review at Ustinov Studio, Bath – ‘a long-lost Harley Granville Barker play’

But he is more willing to talk about some of those projects than others. Later this year, the original production of Les Miserables, which Nunn adapted and directed with John Caird, will move out of the Queen’s Theatre while the venue undergoes refurbishment. Cameron Mackintosh announced that, when the overhaul is finished, the production going back into the Queen’s would be the stripped-back touring production – which, crucially, removes the famous revolve. So there’s a huge question of royalties for Nunn, Caird and the RSC, but more importantly there’s the question of legacy. How does Nunn feel about the change?

There is a very long pause. “‘Don’t go there’ is all I can say.” Another long pause. Nunn looks away, and all the energy that had driven the conversation just disappears. “Thirty-seven years,” he says finally, “of a show that we started at the RSC is pretty extraordinary.”

‘We are a very flawed species, but what distinguishes us from the beasts is that we are capable of forgiveness’

When he recovers, Nunn talks instead about the recent television adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel – “I have not been watching it but I’m sure I will one day sit through it as a box set” – and responding to Andrew Davies’ comment that the musical is “contemptible doggerel” he says: “Saying something derogatory about somebody else’s piece of work, especially while it’s still current, is very ill-advised.”

Harley Granville Barker: Lost Edwardian play sheds light on a forward-thinking writer

The theme that always moved Nunn the most in Les Mis, one that he also argues is the most important element across all of Shakespeare’s work, is forgiveness. “We are a very flawed species. We can ascend almost to the level of angels, and yet most of the time we behave like beasts. What distinguishes us from the beasts is that we are capable of forgiveness.” It’s a theme he may have to take to heart in the coming months.

While Nunn had the nous to glimpse gold in Les Mis, despite being repeatedly told that it would be a flop, his eye for a moneyspinner hasn’t always been entirely accurate. Around the turn of the century, Schwartz approached Nunn with an idea for a musical based on Gregory Maguire’s novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. Would he like to direct, Schwartz asked.

There’s a grin on Nunn’s face. “Look, I’m certain that in every generation people have done the stupid thing of turning down pure gold. Stephen sent me some music on a tape and something about it was making me hold back. Eventually I had a meeting with him and said: ‘I think you need somebody who’s 200% excited. I’m not sure I’m the right person.’ ” He laughs, and adds: “Idiot!”

One of the aspects of Nunn’s career that has puzzled people over the years is the unusual split between work in the subsidised sector – his leadership of the RSC and the National – and huge commercial ventures such as Les Mis, Cats and Starlight Express; a split, too, between productions in tiny fringe theatres and those on the biggest West End and Broadway stages.

But it makes no difference to him. “I love working big. I love working small,” is his explanation. “That balance of large and small defines everything that I love. I love the big gesture, I love the small enquiry.”

The variety of scale also allows Nunn to take on several projects at once, which means he’s never stopped being prolific. Besides Agnes Colander, there’s his revival of Fiddler on the Roof, a production adhering to the vision of book writer Joseph Stein. Working with Nunn on The Baker’s Wife, Stein was staying at the director’s house and they got chatting about Fiddler. “Joe murmured to me: ‘If only it could be more real.’ So that’s how I’ve done it.”

Then later this year his film Red Joan, starring Judi Dench as a KGB spy, is released and there’s another film in the pipeline. Plus he’s working with Schwartz again on “pretty much the biggest thing I will ever have done in my life”. Nunn has just turned 79 but at this rate, just like his most famous creation, it looks like he’s going to run and run.

CV: Trevor Nunn

Born: 1940, Ipswich
Training: English, University of Cambridge
Landmark productions: The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, Aldwych Theatre (1980); Cats, West End (1981); Les Miserables, West End (1985)
Awards: Olivier awards for Nicholas Nickleby (1980) and Summerfolk/The Merchant of Venice/Troilus and Cressida (2000); Tony awards for Nicholas Nickleby (1982), Cats (1983) and Les Miserables (1987)

Agnes Colander runs at London’s Jermyn Street Theatre until March 16. Fiddler on the Roof transfers to the Playhouse Theatre from March 21.

Designer John Napier: ‘Les Mis has gone backwards – it’s become formulaic, not radical’

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