Nunn's 'mental disturbance'

5 October 2007

If you haven’t heard that a certain Sir Trevor Nunn has directed a certain Marlowe Society’s centenary production showing at the Arts Theatre this week, you’ve probably been shut up in a box for the past month. Or else if you have heard but didn’t register, let me put the pieces together for you. You know Trevor Nunn; if you’ve ever seen a Royal Shakespeare Company production, been to the National Theatre (he’s been Artistic Director of both and took on the RSC at just 28), or even just took your grandma to Cats or Les Mis you’ve probably seen a play he directed. And you’ll almost certainly know of the Marlowe Society; even if you’ve not been lucky enough to catch one of their shows in Cambridge, you probably know their alumni – Sir Ian Mckellen, Simon Russell Beale, Sacha Baron-Cohen and, indeed, Trevor Nunn. Needless to say, when one of the world’s most successful drama societies invites one of the world’s best directors to stage their annual, professionally-directed Shakespeare, something very special is brewed up.

The brewing took place in a rehearsal room opposite the Royal Courts of Justice in London. I sat in the café next door, waiting for Sir Trevor to talk to me over a lunch break. It’s funny how, with one foot firmly in the Cambridge door, you find that your other foot kicks other doors wide open. Half an hour’s conversation with Nunn is not that easy to bag and – here’s a confession- is something I’ve wanted since the age of eleven.

Cymbeline was Nunn’s Cambridge debut with the Marlowe Society back in 1960, when he played ‘First Gentleman’ (a part he has shared out amongst a chorus for this production), but until now was one of the few Shakespeare plays he had not directed. Therefore, he doesn’t deny that this is a symbolic project: “It’s an experience full of delight and also a degree of unsettlement. Of course there are a huge number of memories as I work but I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t just that ingredient of mental disturbance; you’d have to be brain dead for that not to be the case.” And Nunn is anything but brain dead. Gesticulating dynamically and yet talking slowly, he takes his time to pick the right word. But when he picks one, it’s usually perfect. He’s not as extrovert as you might expect, but has a striking warmth of character that immediately put me at ease.

Our conversation drifted from the play and the cast to theories of directing Shakespeare and rehearsal approaches. An impressive scholar, Nunn is fascinating when he talks about this late Shakespeare play, which tells the story of separated lovers, lost children, cross-dressing and decapitated mistaken identities: “Cymbeline is a play that’s full of contradictions and oddities, but it’s full of wonder and I think it’s capable of making a very unusual emotional impact on an audience. It almost proves that Shakespeare did drink with his fellow writers at the Mermaid Tavern and one night somebody said to him ‘I bet you couldn’t write a play that contains all your previous plots and wrap them all up in the last scene’ and he said ‘Yeah, of course I can. When d’you want it?’ Yet on the other hand Shakespeare’s inventing magic realism; he’s saying ‘As I approach some sort of summation, I want to believe in human nature. But in order to do that I need to believe in miracle and so I’m going to write about that possibility of miracle or magic and the possibility that people’s lives can be resolved and given meaning by their children.'”

During the short rehearsal period, the cast and crew have noted Trevor Nunn’s detailed attention to the text; he analyses every line meticulously to bring out its meaning. But he doesn’t always work like this. “During my time I’ve done many entirely interpretive productions where I’ve taken liberties with the text, moved the text around, even written several hundred lines into the text. But it wouldn’t be appropriate for these circumstances. The Marlowe Society is a drama society founded on devotion to Shakespeare’s language, to the text. That’s what it was in the twenties and thirties, that’s what it was when I went to Cambridge; it was that tradition which produced John Barton and Peter Hall and the language tradition that took root in Startford-upon-Avon . It seems to me that it is entirely appropriate to take that back to Cambridge, to make that the essence.”

Talking to some of the cast, I got the impression that Nunn’s notes come entirely from the text, that he communicates his ideas through Shakespeare’s lines. So is he textually preoccupied? “No, no, I wouldn’t say that, no. I’m endlessly reminding them of situations; something that maybe happened to them yesterday, something that occurs all the time, something that one’s seen recently in a television documentary and so on in order to make things immediate. It’s trying to pull together textual things and things from human observation.” But, he says, you can’t do Shakespeare without nitpicking the words. “Clearly careful textual analysis must never be lost, because if it’s lost then Shakespeare’s lost. Once you’ve x-rayed the text – once you’ve seen what the spine is and where the bones are – you see why every scene is necessary, how everything attaches to the play. But if you say, “I’ve had a great idea – I’m gonna do it in grass skirts and then we’ll make things fit,” clearly you’re working the wrong way round.”

After decades of working with RSC actors, a bunch of students that requires coaching in Shakespearisms is quite a change: “I would say that there was quite a lot of noviciate behaviour at the beginning. I was very surprised that it was a minority of people who had heard the things I was talking about, like the distinction between simile and metaphor. But once we did start rehearsing, it’s entirely possible that this group were more ready to start a Shakespeare play than many a group in a drama school would be.” Sir Trevor also came across the hurdle of a cast that were so keen, they were stunned: “After a couple of weeks I was feeling that there was a little bit too much one way traffic, people felt they had to be listeners and that’s not the most productive way for a rehearsal proceed. That certainly isn’t the case at the moment; it’s very much more a dialogue and people are happily developing strong ideas and strong solutions for what they’re doing.”

However, don’t get any illusions. Although Trevor Nunn has clearly grown fond of the Marlowe cast, he knows very well who belongs where, at least for the moment: “I’m blessed with having very good university actors who are capable of getting a long way with that material. But it would be foolish for anybody to expect that what we’re doing here is anything other than a production of a university drama society.”

Trevor Nunn’s production of Cymbeline for the Marlowe Society is clearly the highlight of the Cambridge theatrical year, a unique collaboration which will be remembered by cast and audience alike. The cast may have leaped over several flights of stairs to the top of the theatre world, yet for now Sir Trevor Nunn remains a fleeting presence. “I’ve got to fly!” he says and cuts off our encounter, clutching the script he is still adjusting three days before opening night.