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An Interview with Trevor Nunn

Trevor Nunn Called "the best all-round director currently working in British theater" by the authoritative Cambridge Guide to World Theater, Trevor Nunn has been responsible for such improbable runaway hits as a musical based on a poem by T. S. Eliot (Cats), a nine-hour staging of a Dickens novel (Nicholas Nickleby), a Victor Hugo epic set to music (Les Miserables), plus countless sold-out productions of Shakespeare plays.

Born in 1940, Nunn was only 28 when he succeeded the venerable Peter Brook as artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, where he served until 1986. In 1997, he was named artistic director of the Royal National Theatre, succeeding another directing prodigy: Richard Eyre (director of Masterpiece Theatre's King Lear with Ian Holm). Nunn's latest work for the National includes The Cherry Orchard with Vanessa Redgrave and a dazzling revival of My Fair Lady.

Nunn recently discussed his multi-award winning production of The Merchant of Venice, which has been creatively restaged for television on Masterpiece Theatre.

What was your inspiration for this production?

I ran the Royal Shakespeare Company for eighteen years and during that time I think there were three productions of The Merchant of Venice. I didn't direct any of them. I didn't because I was of the prevailing view that there is something fundamentally problematic and distasteful about the play. Then, about eight or nine years ago I read an excellent piece by an elder statesman of English theater reviewers, a man named David Nathan, who died just last year. He wrote that regrettably he had reached the conclusion that The Merchant of Venice shouldn't continue to be produced; the shadow of the Holocaust is just too great for us to be able to come to terms with whatever Shakespeare's intention may have been. The piece had a deep effect on me. It partly resonated with what I was feeling, and yet it was at odds with my view that Shakespeare is the greatest humanist who has ever lived. How could it be that such a humanist could have written an unsavory and possibly racist tract?

I reread the play with that article in mind. Then I started to think in terms of a particular leading actor -- Henry Goodman -- who I had always wanted to work with. Henry is devoutly Jewish. And I began to think that a production of the play which included Henry and which was conceived in the context of David Nathan's article, would test the propositions of the play and would test my view of Shakespeare's humanism.

That's what led me to the decision that we should present the play as if it concerned events that occurred in-between the two world wars. Why? Because it was that very period when anti-Semitic thought and anti-Semitic behavior was becoming current and even -- it's ghastly to think it -- voguish and the subject of wit and amusement. I wanted to put the play there so it couldn't in any way shrink from the reality of the Holocaust, which was just coming down the pike.

Did David Nathan see your production?

He not only saw it, he wrote a full page article in The Jewish Chronicle in which he said he had been wrong and was glad the play was presented in this production, because what does emerge is a humanist masterpiece in which there are no simple political conclusions but there is a profound cautionary impact. I suppose that was the single most important moment to me in the history of the production, that article.

Laurence Olivier once said: "The Merchant of Venice is horrid, cruel, and one of the most popular plays in the whole collected volume of Shakespeare." Do you agree with his implied connection between the play's cruelty and popularity?

That was certainly something that characterized the production that Olivier was very thrillingly involved with [in 1970]. The Christian behavior in that production was presented as shockingly cruel. I personally felt there were many gradations of human behavior that weren't sufficiently itemized in that production. I don't mean to put it down, I'm just saying it was a different view.

Of course, before Shakespeare wrote The Merchant of Venice Christopher Marlowe had written a barbaric, anti-Semitic play called The Jew of Malta. It appealed to savagery and cruelty in a kind of bear-baiting way. I think Shakespeare wrote his play as a reply, as a cautionary tale for everybody involved in that sort of crowd-pleasing endeavor. I don't think Shakespeare was contributing to it; I think he was saying here is an alternative view.

Your production is set between the wars. Is it specifically the 1920s or '30s?

It's right on that cusp. It's the very end of the Twenties, the very beginning of the Thirties. We're not doing a documentary. The production is intended to be evocative of those absolutely extraordinary years between the wars, when we all know what happened in Germany and we also know what happened in Italy with that shift toward a fascistic outlook, the punishment of minorities of every kind, and the dangerous attraction to nationalism.

At the end of the play you shifted the order of the speeches a bit...

I did. Shakespeare's Folio text ends sort of strangely with some rather crude insensitive jokes from Gratiano. Those lines are often cut. I didn't want to do that, since his insensitivity is an important part of what we're talking about. But there are some earlier lines from Portia where she talks about the strange, unsettled dawn that is arriving. They have talked through the night and an uncomfortable dawn is breaking. I transposed those lines to the very end. Then as a kind of rumbling, distant thunder becomes apparent, and people slightly shiver with the cold of dawn, Portia says, "It is almost morning," which is indeed part of that dawn speech. But that became the last line of the play.

What is the very haunting song that Jessica sings?

It's a song in Hebrew that her father has taught her. At the time when we first hear it she's full of rebellion, as teenagers are. She wants to be outside her father's influence. By the end of the play, she realizes what has happened to her father and what has happened to her. She realizes that people continue to see her as alien and even joke about her alien nature, and she feels very much an outsider. She sings that song again in Hebrew because that is her identity, and she is not going to masquerade in a different identity ever again.

You once said that "it is not necessarily so that Shakespeare will be performed in the next century..."

When I ran the Royal Shakespeare Company there was a loyal Shakespeare audience that would attend because there was this passion about Shakespeare. A great deal of that is passing. I have a fear that the level of Shakespeare production will decline as the new century goes on. I think we have to fight determinedly against that and that means using all weapons at our disposal. It means we need more educational Shakespeare projects, more Shakespeare in schools, more high class Shakespeare productions, more exchange of Shakespeare productions between different cultures, and of course, more televising of Shakespeare and more filming of Shakespeare. It's so thrilling when Baz Luhrmann comes along and rediscovers Romeo and Juliet for a younger generation. But Baz achieved that brilliant thing at the expense of cutting probably sixty percent of the text. I want Shakespeare to be rediscovered with the full text, or with a lot of the text, because that's the genius. That's what we're celebrating.

You're not only involved with Shakespeare productions but with big Broadway-style musicals. Are there similarities between the two?

I used to say the most difficult thing you can do in the theater is a large-scale Shakespeare production. Shakespeare often writes for a cast of thirty-five. Animating a stage for thirty-five people and keeping that complex text comprehensible and exciting is a very demanding process. It's the most difficult thing you can do apart from doing a full-scale Broadway-style musical. There you're dealing with very large casts; you're dealing with a multiplicity of scenes; you're dealing with a quite complicated narrative; even though you're not dealing with a complex poetic text you're dealing with the composer, the lyricist, the book writer, the choreographer, the director, the scenic designer, the lighting director, the sound designer. You can't get anything more difficult than a major musical. Maybe somebody will say, yes, there's one thing more difficult and that's directing an opera in Russia!

Essays + Interviews:
An Interview with Trevor Nunn | Experiencing the National
Shylock and History | The Shortest Shakespeare

Essays + Interviews | Who Was Shakespeare?
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