Bard 400: Sir Trevor Nunn’s Shakespeare Luncheon speech

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THANK you to the organisers of the Pragnell Prize, and to George Pragnells and the Pragnell family. These days, we are so used to saying that “there’s  not much to celebrate”, but today we have almost too much to celebration — as we celebrate Shakespeare’s birth, in the year of the 400th anniversary of his death, which prompts us more than ever to celebrate his astonishing career, and now I must celebrate that for all sorts of blush making reasons, charmingly and generously listed by Michael Dobson, I find myself being celebrated.

A voice in the back of my head is whispering that I must be careful not to get these two celebrations muddled up — “don’t try to share a credit with William Shakespeare,” it’s saying. As if. But yet I’m impelled to tell you that I sense the greatest writer who has ever lived and I, could find ourselves speaking the same language. I’ll try to explain. My daughter, determined to be an actor despite all my warnings, is currently working for a Shakespeare company called Grassroots, who have dedicated themselves to ‘original practice’ — by which they mean working on Shakespeare’s plays without a director, pooling their ideas as actors in a free-wheeling, improvisatory way to arrive at a production. Of course, I asked her if she was trying to tell me something…

Well, certainly the term ‘director’ was never listed in any publication of play or personae during Shakespeare’s lifetime. But pause to think that Shakespeare wrote a scene in Hamlet where the princely young writer of a dramatic speech talks to a group of actors about how he wants his material to be performed. He wants it spoken “trippingly on the tongue” but he says don’t “mouth it” because then I might as well have cast the town crier. “Beget temperance,” he says.

Give your physical life smoothness — actors must suit “the action to the word, the word to the action” to achieve a sense of what he calls “nature” — because the purpose of playing (and by association ‘plays’ or ‘the theatre’) is to “hold the mirror up to nature, to show the very age and body of the time his form and impresser.” Nature — naturalism or truthfulness as we now call it — and above all recognition. Looking in that mirror, Hamlet wants the audience to say, ‘I have had that feeling, I have behaved like that…’ And what word does this famous speech end with…? Humanity.

So, quite simply I’m saying every word of Hamlet in that scene is the utterance of a director, and since we know Will Shakespeare acted in his own plays, he would surely have been in rehearsal urging those ideas to his colleagues every day of his working life. And who else would that other actors turn to if they wanted a meaning elucidated, an intention made clear or a physical situation  to be described — when the man who wrote it was standing there. I’m saying that of course Shakespeare was his own director, and, therefore, he would share a language and a sense of both the delight and the difficulties of rehearsal not only with me, but with all the directors who have, for the last 400 years, loyally followed in his massive footsteps.

I have followed, pretty obediently and very determinedly, through the experience of directing 35 of the official Folio list of 37 of his plays. I’m rehearsing my 36th, and by midsummer, I should have done the 37th. I can’t think of a luckier, more fulfilling way to spend one’s “little life” on earth. But luck has played a great part in my Shakespeare journey. I’ve met so many people who say there were put off Shakespeare for life by the deadline ‘repeat after me’ kind of lessons in Shakespeare’s verse at school. I once saw, in a school magazine, evidence of just how unlucky one could be.

The headmaster, summing up the year of school life, had included this, “I am sure parents and pupils alike will want to join me in saying a huge ‘thank you’ to Matron when, in the school play, at very short notice, she stepped in to play the part of King Lear.”

Unlucky or what?

But the opposite happened to me. I found myself, at the age of 12, in the thrall of a wonderful schoolteacher, called Mr Hewett, who was thrillingly able to bring Shakespeare alive in the classroom. And then at university, I encountered the great George (Dadie) Rylands, who had once directed Gielgud but was not teaching literature and directing student Shakespeare. And then I had the luck of encountering at university, the tornado impact of John Barton, scholar, fight director, play director and the single greatest teacher of the possibilities of Shakespeare’s language in performance.

But my luck didn’t end there. I was working in Coventry, just after leaving college, so I hitch-hiked to Stratford-upon-Avon countless times, to buy a standing room ticket and watch from the very back of the Memorial Theatre, the revolutionary productions and performances, produced under the banner of the newly-formed Royal Shakespeare Company. That banner — that company — had been invented and given life by the great Peter Hall, unquestionably the greatest director/impresario of our age, a phenomenally dynamic, articulate visionary, who was determined to convert Stratford Shakespeare from being the home of a splendid summer season featuring many a starry name into an ensemble theatre, operating in Stratford and London, as dominant, as identifiable, as inimitable, as recognised worldwide, as the Moscow Art Theatre and the Berliner Ensemble. Incredibly, fortunately for me, he asked me to work for him, and with him; to have had that culture-changing, prophetic genius as a daily inspiration, as a mentor, and finally, most amazingly, as a very dear friend, has to be the luckiest break you can get in this crazy, randomly unpredictable business.

I confess I wasn’t quite so sure about my luck when Peter insisted that he was leaving the RSC and that I must now take over from him and run the company, at a point when I had only just about learned how to run a rehearsal. But learning on the job — and as an Artistic Director you can never stop learning — I had the extraordinary support not only of the great John Barton and the magnificent RSC management headed by David Brierley, but also my close colleague and friend, the late David Jones, and my dear friend Terry Hands, who then shared the Artistic Direction of the company with me for several years.

After 18 years at the helm, it was almost impossible to leave. By then, our London operation had moved from the Aldwych Theatre to our very own theatre at the Barbican. I had had a face off with the Arts Council and risking disaster, I had gone ahead and opened The Other Place — our small theatre, which became so successful that I then found a warehouse/costume storage rehearsal space in Covent Garden called the Donmar, and so opened our small theatre operation in London there. And just before I left, and through another miraculous bit of good luck, I was able to get built and to open my dream space for all of the plays by Shakespeare’s contemporaries we so wanted to do, the Swan Theatre.

I left in the knowledge that we had become the biggest, and some said the best known theatre company in the world. We were still very much an ensemble, with artists developing and advancing on long-term contracts —and over the years it seemed to be our growing function to provide the film industry with a procession of stars — like Glenda Jackson, Janet Suzman, Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, Helen Mirren, Judi Dench, Ben Kingsley, Richard Griffiths and so recently, the late Alan Rickman, and yet somehow film never beckoned to some RSC stars who led the company over so many devotedly brilliant years, people like Alan Howard, Richard Pasco, both so sadly missed.

I rejoice that the Royal Shakespeare Company continues to flourish but, I am going to give public voice to a private sadness… that in more recent years, the RSC has abandoned its London home, and although its occasional visits to the epicentre of world theatre are always a great cause of excitement, something almost indefinable but crucial was forfeited when the RSC left town. with a 12 month of the year operation flourishing in both our headquarters in Stratford and London, the RSC was known, and had every right to be known, as ‘the other National Theatre’, going neck and neck and sometimes tooth and claw against and alongside that ‘other one’ on the South Bank.

The Hall genius had been to get the RSC and Stratford Shakespeare into the middle of the wild whirl of the West End zeitgeist. I known wonderful Greg Doran, who is so brilliantly leading the company at the moment, agrees that, however long it takes, the mission must be to have the RSC back in a permanent London home, where it deserves to be. Stratford first and foremost, but London too.

Well, Stratford to London was the route travelled, probably many times, by William Shakespeare. Just under 400 years ago, he made the journey for the last time, bidding farewell to the theatre by means of the theatre with The Tempest when a Magus drowns his book and leaves his magic kingdom to go home, where, he says, “every second thought will be his grave”. Was Shakespeare ill, and knew that continuing at that relentless and almost inexplicable rate of output was no longer possible? Four hundred years ago, he died, alas without supervising a precisely edited accurate edition of his plays, thereby creating an industry which shows no sign of slowing down.

Today we all join in celebrating that unique output, coupled with his idea of theatre, his company, his ensemble and so the countless companies and ensembles that have flourish since his time, dedicated to his work all over the world; and we celebrate the idea of Shakespeare as a man of the theatre — and so, just a few yards away from the place that so totally changed and governed and dominated my articles life, I propose the toast to The Theatre.

Raise your glasses to… The Theatre.