- Interviews with Theatre Practitioners about Texts for Performance
INTERVIEW WITH TREVOR NUNN1
When you are directing Shakespeare or another Renaissance play—for example, when you are doing Volpone—how do you usually put together a text? Do you use a pre-existing edition or do you put together something yourself?
I am going to say immediately something that I am going to repeat many times, which is, that there is no rule of thumb. Again and again … it’s horses for courses, and one approaches things differently. So … you’ve just mentioned Volpone. I’m doing a very particular production of Volpone.2 I know that I’m doing something outrageous and possibly offensive to every purist, but I’m doing a completely modern-dress production of it, and therefore I have to edit the text quite severely. I would reckon that anybody in whatever style of production they’re doing would discover that the sub-plot of Politic Would-be and Lady Would-be totally doesn’t work. It may have meant something in 1605, but by 1610 it didn’t mean anything. All the references are gone and it is irrecoverable. And it contains some of the worst comic dramaturgy one has ever, ever come across, and this in a play at the center of which is an absolute masterpiece, where the central scam is just fantastically brilliant and riveting, and one doesn’t need to change a word of it. So … to take that as an extreme example, of course I am doing a very major edit. To begin with, I am doing a cut version, swingeingly cut in some places, and then I am collaborating with a writer—Ranjit Bolt, in this case—who is immensely accomplished in verse translation and doing work of this kind. And we’re [End Page 47] having a wonderful time in doing something that sits somewhere between a cut and a re-write.
I mention that because I did something very similar on Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens.3 Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens—is it Shakespeare’s? Is it Middleton’s? And again, the issues of the play seemed to me to speak extraordinarily to the time that I was then living through—Thatcher’s determination that the market was absolutely the only measure and as she notoriously said, “There is no such thing as society,” and so on. And here was a very oddly misshapen play that appeared not to resolve properly, but that was overwhelmingly about those issues, that if the only valuation that people live by is a monetary one, then dreadful cruelties and selfishness occur. And it is to be railed against, and therefore, I did a heavily cut version, and this time the writer that I contacted was myself, and I adapted and interposed bits of text here and there, and what was fascinating … was that the critical fraternity arrived—it was a fraternity then—there was virtually no sorority—and they hugely, hugely approved of this attempt on the play, and said it was revelatory, and not one person said, “Although, Oy! Have you re-written a bit or have you put in some lines?” And therefore when you get into the more obscure territories, when you get to the plays that are so rarely done because there is something incomplete or problematic about them, then, that sort of textual intervention, I think, is understandable and forgivable.
Absolutely. Are you preparing these texts from a particular edition or do you use an online text? What is your starting point?
In that case I think I prepared my text from the Penguin edition, but I consulted other editions. I admit that I was using anything and everything of Shakespeare/Middleton that I could in service of a particular production. But those are extreme examples. We have started with the most extreme.
We live in such a changing world. The director traditionally was the person in the room to be approached by the acting company with questions such as “what does this mean” or “how do we interpret this?” or “what is this reference? I...